To sum up the early days of last season, Michigan State's players and coaches were rolling their eyes at all the constant reminders of their poor 2016 record. Going 3-9 in one of the toughest college football conferences not only embarrassed the athletics program, but opened up reports of locker room discord and general disarray from a roster that's known for being solid from top-to-bottom.
The Spartans' leaders ensured reporters and fans alike that that wouldn't happen again during the 2017 Big Ten Media Days, and followed through on that promise by delivering an exceptional rebound campaign. Not only did Michigan State go 10-3 and end its season on a Holiday Bowl victory high, but it effectively destroyed any chance of a Penn State College Football Playoff berth in the process. Granted, that game was wet and wild, included a three and a half hour rain delay, and ended with a mere three-point victory, but Michigan State got it done, derailing the Lions' last chance of making school history in the playoff era.
This year's Spartan squad is not only several strings deep at most positions, but it's one that is oozing confidence. And now that it has clawed its way back in the upper-echelon of football strengths, Michigan State will be a tough foe to beat. Luckily, the Land Grant showdown will be inside the Lions' territory this time around.
Michigan State at a glance
|Head Coach||Mark Dantonio (2007-present), 100-45 overall record at MSU|
|2017 Record||10-3, 7-2 Big Ten (T-2nd in B1G East)|
|2017 Postseason||Holiday Bowl win vs. Washington State|
|Biggest Losses||RB Gerald Holmes, RB Madre London, LB Chris Frey|
|Biggest Returnees||QB Brian Lewerke, RB L.J. Scott, WRs Felton Davis, Darrell Stewart, and Cody White, LBs Joe Bachie and Andrew Dowell, DB Khari Willis, CBs Josiah Scott and Justin Layne|
|Summary||Michigan State has an overloaded roster of returning talent and experience. Not only will it be a tough matchup for the Lions, but a Big Ten Championship berth may just be on the line.|
|Matchup With PSU||Michigan State stole back the Land Grant Trophy last season and currently holds the all-time series record against the Lions at 16-15-1. This will be one of Penn State's toughest matchups in 2018.|
Quarterback Brian Lewerke was essentially a nobody in terms of the national stage this time last year. Upon Connor Cook's departure after the 2015 season, Tyler O'Connor took over in East Lansing, with less than stellar results. Hope for the future of the Spartan quarterback situation mostly rested upon the shoulders of freshman Messiah deWeaver. Instead, Brian Lewerke burst onto the scene in 2017 to the tune of 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns, firmly slotting himself into the driver's seat of the Sparty offense. His breakout performance, which also included a completion percentage of 59-percent, a 20-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and a QB rating of 127.7, has Lewerke's name cemented in conversations that include Cook and even Kirk Cousins, the two most prolific signal callers under Mark Dantonio. He's a pretty big deal up in East Lansing.
In the backfield is projected starter LJ Scott, who opted, without hesitation, not to declare for the 2018 NFL Draft directly after Michigan State's bowl win. His strong, immediate decision to return sparked the Spartans before the offseason had even begun. Behind Lewerke, Scott is easily the most important piece of this offense. He has led the team in rushing in each of the past three seasons despite sharing carries with two other teammates, namely Connor Heyward, who'll probably be used situationally by Dantonio. Keying in on that one-two punch will be a necessity to slow down the Spartans.
As for the receiving corps, Michigan State returns all three of its starting wide-outs, consisting of Felton Davis III, Darrell Stewart, and Cody White. That trio accounted for 140 catches, 1,767 yards, and 15 touchdowns last season. Davis III is the go-to guy for Lewerke, as he was regularly targeted when a big play through the air was needed.
Junior linebacker Joe Bachie immediately comes to mind when you consider this Spartan defense. Last season, he ranked sixth in the Big Ten with 100 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 3 interceptions. He also received third-team All-Big ten honors and was named team MVP by his teammates. Bachie is just one of the many returning starters on the defensive side of the roster, which is a scary thought for opposing offenses that already struggled with last year's squad. The Spartans also return senior Andrew Dowell, who was listed second on the team with a career-high 74 tackles in 2017.
Like the offense, Michigan State is extremely deep defensively, especially at the safety position. It returns Khari Willis, who ranked fourth on the team with 71 tackles and four sacks. At cornerback, the Spartans own arguably the best duo in the country in Josiah Scott and Justin Layne (though Scott is slated to miss about two months after suffering a non-contact injury during fall practice). Shakur Brown is an early name to watch as far as a replacement for Scott. Layne and Scott's combined stat line from 2017 is impressive: 18 pass breakups, three interceptions, and 70 total tackles between the two of them. Dantonio likes to press with his cornerbacks, and he has a lot of trust in Scott and Layne to get the job done.
Sophomore Matt Coghlin, after tying a freshman program record last season, is back and ready to improve on his 15/19 made field goals, which was enough to earn All-Big Ten honorable mention. Senior Jake Hartbarger, who averaged 42 yards per punt last season and placed 28 of them inside the opponent's 20-yard line, also returns.
Kick-returners Heyward, Stewart, and Andre Welch will most likely share the load this season once again in 2018. Heyward took over midway through the 2017 season, and led the team with 436 yards on 20 return opportunities.
The Spartans look dangerously deep and composed. They have a very favorable schedule compared to last year's where they still went 10-3. A non-conference slate of Utah State, Arizona State, and Central Michigan is hardly anything to fear. The Spartans also managed to once again avoid Wisconsin as a Big Ten West opponent, which carries a lot of merit.
They're easily in the hunt for a Big Ten title and a pose a huge threat to the Lions' Playoff hopes once again. Fortunately, Penn State will be the second tier of a three-week Big Ten platter for the Spartans, consisting of Northwestern, Penn State, and Michigan back-to-back-to-back. Maybe that, coupled with 107,000 of Beaver Stadium's faithful, will be enough to bring the Land Grant trophy back to Happy Valley.