EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - With every victory, the stakes grow more significant for No. 16 Michigan State.
The Spartans have already become bowl eligible and doubled last season's win total, and now they can set their sights on even greater heights. Unbeaten in Big Ten play, Michigan State could end up playing meaningful games down the stretch against the top teams in the conference - but the Spartans shouldn't have any illusions. If they're going to compete for a surprising league title, there's a lot of room for improvement.
"I think we're a realistic football team," coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. "We understand what we have to do, too. I don't think we're getting ahead of ourselves."
Michigan State (6-1, 4-0) plays at Northwestern (4-3, 2-2) on Saturday in the Spartans' final game before facing Penn State and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks. Win this weekend, and those November matchups will look a lot more compelling than they seemed at the beginning of the season, when the Spartans were simply trying to earn back some respect after a dismal 2016.
Michigan State has exceeded expectations so far, but the Spartans have hardly been dominant. They've scored 20 points in only one of their last five games, and their offense is a big reason it's still hard to treat them as a major threat for the Big Ten title.
The Spartans are No. 1 in the conference in total defense, but they're 12th in scoring and ninth in passing.
"The defense has played pretty much well every single game. The offense just needs to step it up," quarterback Brian Lewerke said. "We realize that on the offensive side of the ball."
Michigan State is seventh in the conference in total offense and second in time of possession, so it's not as though the Spartans have been shut down. It's just that they aren't finishing drives with enough points. Turnovers were an issue early in the season, and the Spartans haven't been all that efficient in the red zone.
Last weekend, Michigan State trailed Indiana 9-3 before Lewerke finally put the Spartans ahead with a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Michigan State won 17-9 despite gaining only 274 yards of offense. The Spartans were held to 89 yards rushing on 44 carries.
"It's not like we're not running the ball at all. We want to run it more," Dantonio said. "Some of the efficiency is there, but then something will happen like we'll bobble the snap or we'll snap the ball over our head, or something happens and we take a negative-yardage play, and all of a sudden you're sitting back there third-and-8 rather than third-and-3."
Although Michigan State has gotten used to these tight, low-scoring affairs, its most recent meeting with Northwestern was anything but. The Wildcats won 54-40 last year in East Lansing.
That game feels like it's in the distant past now, given how much the Spartans have improved defensively - but win or lose, the games against Northwestern have often been opportunities for Michigan State to put up points. The Spartans have scored at least 20 in each of the last nine meetings with the Wildcats, reaching 30 in seven of them.
Michigan State's defense has made the Spartans relevant again in the Big Ten, but unless the offense comes around, there may be a ceiling on how much they can accomplish.
"I do not think we played our best football game yet as a team," Dantonio said. "Brian Lewerke has not been on fully. We've not run the ball fully. We've not gone through a game where everything is going right for us. We need to have one of those football games as we get here in the second half of the season."