EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Kirk Cousins and Michigan State should find out awfully soon what kind of season this is going to be.
"Now, we start our 'second season' — in the Big Ten," Cousins said after Saturday's 45-7 victory over Central Michigan. "That's really more important."
The Spartans won't be easing into their conference schedule. Next weekend, they play their Big Ten opener at Ohio State. Later in October, Michigan State faces Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
After finishing last season in a tie for the Big Ten title, the Spartans will be tested immediately in their attempt to repeat. The first task will take place in Columbus, Ohio, where Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio used to work as an Ohio State assistant.
"We'll point toward that and have our guys ready to go," Dantonio said. "We will be focused and ready to go. It will be a challenge for us, as everybody knows, but I am looking forward to the opportunity."
Michigan State (3-1) lost to its only tough opponent so far, falling 31-13 at Notre Dame. As ugly as that defeat was, it has no lasting effect on the Spartans' Big Ten hopes. What is more of a concern to Michigan State is the state of its offensive line, which lost three players recently to injury.
The banged-up Spartans were still determined to run the ball well against Central Michigan, and they were able to do so for the most part. Michigan State led 31-0 at halftime and ended up with 197 yards rushing after totaling only 29 against Notre Dame. The Spartans outgained Central Michigan 481-112.
"I think we got a sense of what it is we are trying to do," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said.
Michigan State also took advantage of four turnovers.
"When you force more than two turnovers, you usually win the game," defensive lineman Jerel Worthy said. "And when you come and play worry-free and stress-free, you usually win the game."
Cousins wasn't too sharp against Central Michigan, going 13 of 22 for 213 yards. He did throw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Larry Caper in the third quarter before being relieved by backup Andrew Maxwell.
In truth, though, the Spartans have a good sense of what to expect from the experienced Cousins. It's the rest of the offense that's more uncertain, particularly because of problems on the offensive line.
And Michigan State has even looked shaky on special teams — an area of strength in the past under Dantonio. The Spartans had a punt blocked Saturday, and Central Michigan took advantage of the good field position, quickly scoring its only touchdown of the game.
"It's frustrating because it takes a game that's a clean game and possibly could be a shutout, and all of a sudden that possibility diminished," Dantonio said. "If you are going to continue to be a good football team, those catch up to you and have a direct bearing on the game."
This next matchup would have looked nice on last year's Big Ten schedule, but the Spartans and Buckeyes didn't play each other. That's part of the reason the two teams finished tied with Wisconsin for the conference championship. The Badgers ended up winning the tiebreaker and going to the Rose Bowl — even though Michigan State beat Wisconsin during the regular season. Ohio State played in the Sugar Bowl, and the Spartans settled for the Capital One Bowl.
There won't be any tie for the title this season, now that the league has added Nebraska and instituted a conference championship game.
Michigan State and Ohio State are both unranked, and after facing the Buckeyes, the Spartans will have an open date before hosting rival Michigan. After that, no rest for the weary. Wisconsin and Nebraska are both top 10 teams right now, and the Spartans will have to play the Cornhuskers on the road.
"We're ready," Michigan State receiver B.J. Cunningham said. "The Big Ten will need to be won on the road, and that's what we're going to have to do. We've played in tough atmospheres before."