This summer, I considered Michigan State to be a dark-horse candidate to win the Big Ten’s East division this season. After the Spartans fell to 6-4 on the season after a 26-6 loss to Ohio State Saturday, that prediction looks awfully wrong. But why? Injuries.
After running back LJ Scott left the Arizona State game with an ankle injury in the second half, the Spartans couldn’t hold onto a two-score lead and lost 16-13 in Tempe. Scott missed the next four games before returning against Michigan. But Scott reinjured himself against Purdue, and after sitting out the last two games, decided to redshirt this season since he’d only played in four games. But Scott isn’t the only wounded Spartan in 2018.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke injured his throwing shoulder against Penn State and hasn’t been the same since. He’s completing just 37% of his passes since the injury for 281 yards and no touchdowns; prior to the injury, he was a 60% passer who had thrown for 1,587 yards. Redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi played well replacing Lewerke against Purdue (318 yards and two touchdowns) but not so much last week in relief against Ohio State (35% completion percentage for 92 yards). Lombardi was so ineffective that Lewerke returned to finish the game against Ohio State. It remains to be seen which quarterback will play this week.
All of the injuries has the Spartans’ offense 13th in the Big Ten in scoring offense (21.7 pts/game), total offense (351 yards/gm) and rushing offense (118.4 yards/gm). The Spartans haven’t been completely inept passing prior to Lewerke’s injury; they still rank seventh in the Big Ten, averaging 233 yards per game. Felton Davis has caught 31 passes for 474 yards and four touchdowns before tearing his Achilles; he’s out for the season. Sophomore Cody White has 30 catches for 435 yards and two touchdowns despite missing four games due to a broken hand.
Sophomore Connor Heyward (son of Ironhead) has rushed for 359 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 4.9 yards per carry replacing Scott. Factor out this 80 yard run against Maryland, Heyward is only averaging 3.8 yards per carry.
Connor Heyward runs 80 yards up the middle for a touchdown. https://t.co/PjckdBnjNR— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) November 3, 2018
True freshman La’Darius Jefferson (6’1” 223 lbs.) has rushed for 227 yards as the backup, averaging 3.4 yards per carry. Jefferson, a dual threat quarterback in high school, decommitted from UCF last November; Mario Verduczo and Scott Frost targeted him as a quarterback. The offensive line has been working through injuries as well, with three year starter David Beedle out since early October.
Defensively, Michigan State leads the nation in rush defense, giving up only 76.5 yards per game and just 2.55 yards per carry. You can throw against the Spartans though; they rank 11th in passing yards allowed with 250.8 yards per game. Michigan State opponents have completed more passes (236) this season than any other defense has allowed in the Big Ten. (For comparison’s sake, Michigan has only allowed 114 completions this season.)
Linebackers Andrew Dowell and Joe Bachie lead the Spartan defense in tackles with 75 and 73 respectively. Safety Khari Willis has intercepted two passes and broke up seven more with 71 tackles, while cornerback Justin Layne leads MSU with 12 pass breakups. Defensive end Kenny Willekes’s 8.5 sacks ranks second in the Big Ten; he also has eleven quarterback hurries this season.
Looking at this game, on most Saturdays, Michigan State’s issues on offense and struggles against the pass would seem to favor the Huskers. However, the weather forecast throws a curve ball into the plans.
Not a great update to the forecast for Saturday. Models are showing temps dropping all morning. Precip possible so it could be a rain, to rain/snow/ice mix to snow potential. If you have travel plans, keep an eye on this! #Huskers #GBR https://t.co/CfWUdLnEwW for more details! pic.twitter.com/q3kHcoSR36— Husker Weather (@HuskerWeather) November 15, 2018
Wind and frozen precipitation has the potential to affect Nebraska’s passing game. Yes, Nebraska threw the ball well last week on a cold, windy day, but that was a dry day and against an awful Illinois defense. We’ll have to wait and see what Mother Nature unleashes Saturday morning. Below, you’ll find the original preseason preview of the Michigan State Spartans for reference purposes.
Well, the Spartans did it again in 2017.
Contrary to what the recruiting services might project after signing day, Michigan State had another season with double-digit wins; the Spartans sixth out of the last eight years. And consistently doing it with recruiting ranks that aren’t all that dissimilar from the Huskers. Coaching matters, and Mark Dantonio just keeps outdoing it year after year.
Well, except for 2016. The Spartans followed up a trip to the College Football Playoff with a 3-8 season. Was the magic gone? Nope. Despite only returning eight starters, Michigan State went 10-3 in 2017 for the biggest turnaround in school history. And with NINETEEN starters returning, Michigan State might be the potential candidate to win the Big Ten that nobody is really considering.
In 2016, quarterback Brian Lewerke (6’3” 213 lbs.) claimed the starting job as a freshman, only to suffer a season-ending leg injury in the first month of the season. Last season as a sophomore, Lewerke completed 59% of his passes for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. Lewerke is a dual-threat quarterback who also rushed for 559 yards and five touchdowns last season, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. If Lewerke goes down to injury again, redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi (6’3” 216 lbs.) or true freshman Theo Day (6’5” 217 lbs.) would get the call; both were capable of hurting defenses with the arms or legs in high school
Despite leading the Spartans in rushing the last three seasons, senior L.J. Scott (6’1” 230 lbs.) has never been the clear-cut starter for Michigan State. Until now, that is, as the other backs Scott was splitting carries with have graduated. Last season, Scott earned third-team all-Big Ten honors, rushing for 898 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. As a sophomore, Scott came up six yards shy of 1,000 with seven touchdowns, so assuming that he’ll be the featured back for the first time, if healthy, expect double digit touchdowns and a thousand-yard-plus season in 2018. Sophomore Connor Heyward (60” 228 lbs.), son of Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, mostly saw special-teams duty last season as a true freshman, returning kicks for 442 yards last season. Redshirt freshman Weston Bridges (5’11” 200 lbs.) should also see playing time this season.
Five of last season top six receivers return, led by senior Felton Davis (6’4” 196 lbs.), who caught 55 passes for 776 yards and nine touchdowns, earning him second team all-Big Ten honors. Junior Darrell Stewart (6’2” 214 lbs.) caught 50 passes for 501 yards and two touchdowns last season. Sophomore Cody White (6’3” 214 lbs.) emerged late last season, catching 35 passes for 490 yards and four touchdowns on the season, all but six came in the second half of the season. Senior tight end Matt Sokol (6’6” 255 lbs.) also returns after catching 21 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown last season.
Only one starter (Oakland Raiders fourth round draft pick Brian Allen) needs to be replaced this season, with his brother, sophomore Matthew Allen (6’3” 296 lbs.) stepping in at center. Sophomores Kevin Jarvis (6’4” 312 lbs.) and Luke Campbell (6’5” 290 lbs.) will handle the right side at guard and tackle respectively opposite senior left guard David Beedle (6’5” 329 lbs) and junior left tackle Cole Chewins (6’6” 284 lbs.). Chewins started three games as a freshman in 2016 while Beedle has been a three-year starter, earning third team all-Big Ten honors last season.
With nine returning starters on defense, Michigan State is poised to have one of the best defenses in the Big Ten this season. In 2017, the Spartans led the Big Ten in rush defense (95.3 yards per game) and ranked third in total defense (297.6 yards). Their Achilles’ on defense? Pass defense, where the Spartans ranked seventh in pass defense (202.3 yards per game) and fifth in pass efficiency defense.
Perhaps the biggest surprise last season on defense was former walk-on defensive end Kenny Willekes (6’4” 250 lbs.), who’s seven sacks as a sophomore was sixth-best in the Big Ten. His 73 tackles led the defensive line (third on the team) and his eight quarterback hurries leads all returning Spartans. On the interior, juniors Raequan Williams (6’4” 295 lbs. and Mike Panasiuk (6’4” 294 lbs.) return after putting up 31 and 25 tackles respectively last season.
Junior middle linebacker Joe Bachie (6’2” 230 lbs.) had big shoes to fill last season in replacing two-time all-Big Ten linebacker Riley Bullough. 100 team-leading tackles and three interceptions earned him second team all-Big Ten honors and team MVP - as a sophomore. Senior Star linebacker Andrew Dowell (6’1” 221 lbs.) was second last season on the team with 74 tackles. Sophomore strongside linebacker Antjuan Simmons (6’0” 217 lbs.) played right away as a true freshman with 34 tackles; he’ll get a starting role this season.
The entire secondary returns, plus most of the backups...and with just one senior in the starting lineup, this is a group that’s just going to get better. Junior free safety David Dowell (6’1” 192 lbs.) five interceptions last season ranked second in the Big Ten, earning him first team all-Big Ten honors as a sophomore. Sophomore cornerback Josiah Scott (5’10” 173 lbs.) broke up ten passes with two interceptions as a true freshman, earning him third team all-Big Ten honors. The lone senior, safety Khari Willis (6’0” 215 lbs.) was fourth on the team with 71 tackles last season, while junior cornerback Justin Layne (6’3” 185 lbs.) broke up eight passes with 40 tackles.
Offseason scandal aside, Mark Dantonio’s program just keeps rolling on the field, consistently outperforming what their recruiting rankings might otherwise suggest. That’s coaching effect. And in 2018, with the Spartans getting both little brother Michigan and Ohio State at home in East Lansing, the Spartans really should be the dark horse candidate to win the Big Ten’s east division and head to Indianapolis in December.