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Conference Corner: Michigan State defying expectations, but just in the wrong way

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With Penn State and Michigan on the docket the next two weeks, Mark Dantonio’s team is in a corner.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

This season was supposed to be a return to form for Mark Dantonio and Michigan State.

The second-winningest coach in Spartan history — six more wins to tie Duffy Daugherty — flipped the record from 3-9 in 2016 to 9-3 plus a Holiday Bowl victory in 2017. Despite a 13-12 record the two years before this campaign, optimism bubbled over 19 returning starters, most in the nation.

With a wealth of receivers at preseason all-Big Ten second-team Brian Lewerke’s disposal and a stifling front seven defensively, some were projecting a divisional title.

Dantonio has made a career in East Lansing out of defying expectations. This year, his team has done everything possible to underwhelm them.

They needed last-minute heroics to outlast Utah State 38-31. Admittedly, the Aggies are No. 25 nationally per S&P.

They dropped a road contest in the desert to Herm Edward’s Arizona State Sun Devils.

Early road woes happen, even to eventual conference champions. Just ask 2016 Penn State, losers at Pitt.

Double-digit triumphs over Indiana and Central Michigan papered over issues. Lewerke wasn’t meeting his promise, throwing three interceptions to keep both underdogs afloat. None of the running backs averaged over four yards a carry in September. The pass defense allowed 300-plus yards each in the first two weeks, then gave room to the Hoosiers and moribund Chippewas.

Enter the 1-3 Northwestern Wildcats, fresh off a gut punch of a loss to Michigan the week before. Pat Fitzgerald took advantage of every weakness already displayed by Dantonio’s squad.

Lewerke tossed two more picks, now holding a 6-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Wildcat quarterback Clayton Thorson completed 31-of-47 throws for 373 yards and three scores. Running backs Connor Heyward and La’Darius Jefferson eked out just 27 yards on 11 totes.

Sure, linebacker Joe Bachie and tackle Raequan Williams lived up to the reputation of the country’s No. 1 rush defense, holding Northwestern to just eight yards. With the ‘Cats opting for an Air Raid attack, this became irrelevant.

Michigan State (3-2) has one part of its team that’s working. Aside from the defensive front, the Spartans have a struggling pass defense to go with sputtering rush and pass attacks.

They face No. 11 Penn State off a bye in Happy Valley this weekend, with the Battle for Paul Bunyan looming a week later. This team could conceivably leave Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20 with a 3-4 mark.

Despite possessing one-fourth of a functioning team, never forget the rule of Mark Dantonio: Beware those that disrespect his program.

An ever-growing chip on his shoulder may be the fuel his team needs to push through a season suddenly on the brink.

Next game for Michigan State at No. 11 Penn State (3:30 p.m., BTN)

Next game for Northwestern against Nebraska (Noon, ABC)

OTHER RECAPS

NO. 15 WISCONSIN 41, NEBRASKA 24

While Wisconsin (4-1, 2-0) essentially won with a 14-point second quarter burst, Nebraska (0-5, 0-3) looked far more competent against the Badgers than against the Wolverines two weeks ago.

Scott Frost’s offense continues to rack up yardage, gaining 518 on the road in Madison. Adrian Martinez connected on 24-of-42 for 384 yards and two touchdowns, while leading in rushing with 57.

The Cornhuskers have eclipsed 500 yards in three of their losses (Wisconsin, Colorado and Purdue), only failing to do so versus Michigan and Troy — the latter with backup quarterback Andrew Bunch.

This is not the typical Badger defense. Jim Leonhard’s defense ranks No. 55 in defensive S&P. This is the worst it’s ranked since 2011 (No. 56), when the Russell Wilson and Montee Ball offense carried Bret Bielema to a 45-38 Rose Bowl loss to Oregon.

With Jonathan Taylor third in the country on the ground (849 yards), the offense ranks No. 8 nationally. It blackened the Blackshirts to the tune of 370 yards rushing. While this outdid Michigan, the closeness of the game kept the starters on the field longer.

Once Nebraska converts yards into more points (season high of 28), the wins will come. For Wisconsin, the defense may undermine yet another run at the Big Ten championship.

Next game for Wisconsin at Michigan (7:30 p.m., ABC)

Next game for Nebraska at Northwestern (Noon, ABC)

NO. 3 OHIO STATE 49, INDIANA 26

You watched Indiana-OSU games the last few years? The same pattern happened last Saturday.

The Hoosiers (4-2, 1-2) took a few early leads. Ohio State (6-0, 3-0) and the offense ripped them back for huge points. Indiana blew a few opportunities to make moves in the second half, leading to an eventual Buckeye rout.

While still undefeated and in the playoff hunt, the Scarlet and Gray have dents in the armor. This is the fourth game Greg Schiano’s defense has ceded 26 points or more. Against Trace McSorley and Penn State, that’s understandable. Not so much against Oregon State or a Mike Debord unit.

Additionally, Dwayne Haskins, despite tossing for 1919 yards (third nationally), has accounted for three picks in two weeks. It’s hard to complain about a 25-4 TD-INT ratio, but teams are finding ways to force turnovers.

J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber led an attack that averaged 3.2 yards a tote. Defenses can key on the backs with no more threat from J.T. Barrett.

With Haskins going for 455 yards through the air, this is probably fine. However, as Penn State showed, the offense isn’t the Death Star the first few weeks demonstrated.

Indiana head coach Tom Allen has quietly put together a team with seven to eight wins in reach. He is searching for the program’s first bowl win since 1991 in the Copper Bowl.

Next game for Ohio State against Minnesota (Noon, FS1)

Next game for Indiana against Iowa (Noon, ESPN2)

ILLINOIS 38, RUTGERS 17

Yada yada Rutgers (1-5, 0-3) isn’t good yada yada. Let’s talk Illinois (3-2, 1-1).

Lovie Smith entered his third year for the Illini on the hot seat with a 5-19 record. Behind the rushing triumvirate of quarterback A.J. Bush, Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin, the Orange and Blue have gashed defenses for 243 yards a game on the ground.

They bolstered those numbers against the Scarlet Knights, amassing 330 yards.

Illinois is probably just looking for any improvement from this year’s team, but a bowl game is within reach. The only untenable matchup on the docket is a road trek to Camp Randall Stadium two weeks from now.

Otherwise, Smith needs to muster three wins between the following teams to clinch the first bowl since 2014:

  • Purdue, at Maryland, Minnesota, at Nebraska, Iowa and at Northwestern

Illinois has officially replaced Rutgers on Surprise Bowl Watch (copyright pending).

Next game for Illinois against Purdue (3:30 p.m., FS1)

Next game for Rutgers at Maryland (Noon, BTN)

IOWA 48, MINNESOTA 31

Iowa (4-1, 1-1) outlasted the Gophers (3-2, 0-2) in an uncharacteristically explosive day.

Nate Stanley is perhaps the conference’s most underrated signal-caller, completing just under 62-percent of his throws at a 8.18 clip per attempt. His 314 passing yards and four scores lifted a sluggish ground game (2.65 yards a pop).

Meanwhile, Minnesota freshman Zac Annexstad simultaneously kept the Fighting Flecks in and out of the contest. His 218 yards and three touchdowns catalyzed a 31-point outburst on the nation’s No. 8 S&P defense. However, he also tossed three picks.

In short, the Floyd of Rosedale gets to stay in Iowa City for the fourth straight season.

Next game for Iowa at Indiana (Noon, ESPN2)

Next game for Minnesota at No. 3 Ohio State (Noon, FS1)