SEATTLE — For two weeks against lesser competition, it has all gone according to plan. Impressive moments on both sides of the ball against teams that should be warmups for challenges still to come.
That description could be applied to both No. 11 Michigan State and Washington heading into their nonconference showdown Saturday.
Michigan State (2-0) beat up on a couple of teams from the Mid-American Conference and did nothing to refute the idea the Spartans are worthy of being on the cusp of cracking the top 10. Washington (2-0) thumped Kent State and Portland State and appears to be enjoying the early stages of Kalen DeBoer’s tenure as head coach.
But while both teams have looked the part, neither has proven much yet. Which makes Saturday’s matchup rather intriguing.
“It would be huge, no question. With where we’re at in the process of coming back and building, I like where we’re at after two games,” DeBoer said. “But this is a different animal. We’re talking about a top ranked team. So it would mean a lot to us, there’s no doubt about it.”
DeBoer seems to have brought some fun back to the Huskies, and a win over the Spartans would immediately raise their profile nationally and expectations heading into the start of their Pac-12 schedule next week.
But Washington is in a bit of a drought when it comes to marquee home wins against teams not from the West Coast. Washington hasn’t defeated a ranked Power Five opponent in a nonconference game at home since beating Michigan to open the 2001 season. That 21-year drought has included home losses to the likes of Notre Dame, Ohio State, LSU and Nebraska.
Michigan State coach Mel Tucker knows the importance of getting a statement win early in your tenure. While the 2020 season was rough for the Spartans, their convincing win on the road against a ranked Miami team last year seemed to be the catalyst for Michigan State’s terrific season, which ended with a victory in the Peach Bowl.
But Tucker wants the focus on this team and not comparisons to a year ago.
“We’re building the story of this year’s team right now,” Tucker said. “Last year’s team is gone. That’s a different team. This is a new team, this is a new season. We’re focused on what we have to do on a day-to-day basis to prepare to play good football. That’s where our focus needs to be.”
Someone who knows plenty about the Spartans is Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. Penix faced Michigan State twice during his time at Indiana and had a couple of his best games. He threw for 286 yards and three touchdowns and ran for one in a 40-31 loss to the Spartans in 2019. A year later, Penix threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-0 win over the Spartans.
Also familiar with the Spartans is DeBoer. He faced Michigan State while an assistant at Eastern Michigan and was the offensive coordinator at Indiana for that 2019 loss to the Spartans.
Michigan State is hoping Penix becomes familiar with the face of edge rusher Jacoby Windmon. Windmon was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week in each of the first two weeks of the season. He leads the country in sacks with 5½ and forced fumbles with four. Windmon had 1½ sacks and three forced fumbles last week against Akron and had four sacks in the opener against Western Michigan. Windmon, a transfer from UNLV, is the first Michigan State defensive player to win Big Ten player of the week in consecutive weeks.
Washington’s offensive coaches do have some familiarity with Windmon from their time at Fresno State. Two seasons ago, Windmon had 2½ sacks against Fresno State while playing for UNLV.
“He’s a mature player, a mature young man and he understands opportunity,” Tucker said.
The West is not familiar terrain for Michigan State, nor has it had much success here. Since 1957, the Spartans are 0-13 in regular-season games played in California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Hawaii. Their last win out West was on Oct. 5, 1957, a 19-0 victory over Cal.
The Huskies and Spartans have faced each other only three times before, the last coming in the 1997 Aloha Bowl, a 51-23 Washington victory.