After suffering nonconference setbacks in recent years, Michigan State has cleared the biggest hurdle keeping it from carrying a perfect record into Big Ten play.
Now the fourth-ranked Spartans must guard against a letdown as they prepare to take on visiting Air Force and its unique offense Saturday.
Michigan State (2-0) defeated then-No. 7 Oregon 31-28 last Saturday, avenging a 46-27 loss from last season in which it was outscored 28-3 in the second half. After that defeat and losses to Notre Dame in each of the three previous years, the Spartans are in position for an undefeated nonconference run for the first time since 2010.
"It just shows the progress that we've made as a team that we are not losing those big games at the beginning of the year anymore, and now this is the second stepping stone of the 12 games we've got to win this year," quarterback Connor Cook told the school's official website. "It's just showing the progress of this program and the steps that we are taking; that we are going in the right direction."
They host Central Michigan next week before facing Purdue in their league opener Oct. 3. The odds appear to be stacked this week in favor of Michigan State, which is 22-1 under coach Mark Dantonio against non-power five teams and has won 14 of its last 15 at home overall. The Spartans are also 30-0 as a Top 25 team against unranked opponents under Dantonio.
Air Force has lost 12 of its last 13 on the road against ranked schools, winning 23-21 over No. 23 California on Sept. 21, 2002. The Falcons ended a 20-game losing streak overall against Top 25 foes, however, with a 27-24 win over then-No. 21 Colorado State on Nov. 28.
Though Michigan State's victory last week was a virtual must-have for its College Football Playoff chances, Dantonio was less inclined to revel in the potential postseason implications.
"In my mind, this is a stepping stone game," he said after the win. "This is a game that pays dividends at the end of season, and this is a game that promotes this brand and this program and it's exciting for everybody involved. (But) we need to continue on."
The Falcons (2-0) boast the nation's second-best rushing offense at 411.0 yards per game behind the strength of their triple-option attack. They racked up 428 yards on the ground in last Saturday's 37-16 win against San Jose State.
"They present a lot of problems in terms of discipline, who has who on the option, things of that nature," Dantonio said. "I think it's a tough draw because it's something we've not experienced. We've played option football before but not to this level."
Air Force's offense will have to adjust to playing without quarterback Nate Romine, who is reportedly out for the season with a knee injury suffered in the fourth quarter last week. He was replaced by Karson Roberts, who started three games as a sophomore in 2013.
The Spartans are coming off an impressive performance against Oregon's dynamic running attack, holding the Ducks to 2.9 yards per carry - their fewest in a span of 21 games. Oregon ran for 485 yards in its season-opening win against Eastern Washington.
"We've got all the confidence in the world in our defense, and know that when it's crunch time they're going to come through," Cook said.
Michigan State will be looking to clean up its special teams after a poor showing last Saturday. The Spartans surrendered an 81-yard punt return for a score, a 49-yard return and Michael Geiger missed a 28-yard field goal.
This marks their third meeting with a service academy and first since a 10-6 loss to Army in the 1984 Cherry Bowl. Air Force lost its last matchup with a Big Ten team 31-25 at Michigan on Sept. 8, 2012, falling to 5-10-2 against the conference.