2019-08-08 12:39:521 Oct 2018 01:53 AM EST
-by Daniel Mogollon, Staff Writer; Image: Coach Mark Dantonio leads the Spartans on the field. (Image Source: Nati Harnik/AP Photo)
We continue our Big Ten preview series with the Michigan State Spartans:
Origin of Optimism: The defense is stacked! In defensive end Kenny Willekes (B1G-best 20.5 tackles for loss in 2018), defensive tackle Raequan Williams (21.5 career TFLs), linebacker Joe Bachie (202 tackles in past two seasons), cornerback Josiah Scott (defense allowed 11 PPG in his five games), and safety David Dowell (seven career INTs) the Spartans have five potential first-team All-Big Ten players at five different positions. With eight starters returning from a defense that led the B1G in scoring (17.2 points per game) and the nation in rushing (77.9 yards per game) it’s possible Michigan State’s defense could be even better in 2019.
Cause for Concern: As good as the defense was, the offense was equally bad. This group has gone from 12th in offensive S&P in 2014 to 30th in 2015, 55th in 2016, 72nd in 2017, and 112th in 2018. Do you notice a trend? An improved offense was a big reason for Mark Dantonio’s best stretch as a coach from 2013-15 (36-5) and the dip on offense is why the Spartans are just 23-18 since (most losses over three seasons under Dantonio). Their 18.7 PPG last season were the lowest of the Dantonio era. It really was the tale of two teams in 2018. Yes, injuries played a role in their struggles, but we can’t chalk up all of their troubles to that. Rather than make changes in the staff, Dantonio has made changes in roles, shuffling the coaches around because “it’s the same people calling the same thing (that was successful).” That’s true but it’s also possible the landscape of college football has changed to the point that the same thing isn’t going to net the same results.
Breakout Player: MSU doesn’t nab nearly as many four-star recruits as their fellow B1G East contenders with just five in the past two cycles. One of those four stars is Xavier Henderson, who was recruited as an athlete coming out of Pickerington, Ohio. Since arriving at East Lansing, he’s added some weight and found a home at strong safety after staring at cornerback in high school. Tabbed as the replacement for Khari Willis, Henderson was an early enrollee last season and he earned some valuable playing time as a backup (only one of 22 true freshmen to play in all 13 games) to ready him for taking over the starting role. In his short time, Henderson has impressed with his football IQ, leadership skills, and coverage ability.
X-Factor: In coach Dantonio’s first eight seasons as headman, the Spartans had a rusher go over 1,200 yards on the ground six times, culminating with Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 2,944 yards and 40 touchdowns with 16-straight 100-yard games against Big Ten foes (including a school-record 10-straight 100-yard games) over his two seasons as the starter. Last year, MSU averaged a woeful 3.49 yards per rush and ranked 115th in rushing. That’s simply not Mark Dantonio football. Connor Heyward led them with 529 yards (lowest-leading rusher since 2009) and former quarterback La’Darius Jefferson struggled to adjust, which is why there’s a buzz around true freshman Anthony Williams, who excelled in the spring. Regardless of who totes the rock, it’s up to the O-line to block. They have six players back with starting experience and have added Devonta Dobbs, the highest-rated recruit under Dantonio. Last season, they were part of the problem as the offensive line ranked 116th in opportunity rate, 96th in stuff rate, and 82nd in power success rate per Football Outsiders. It’s possible they could be part of the solution if they can stay healthy and play to their potential. MSU’s ability to run the ball could be the difference between a good and great season.
Schedule: With Northwestern and Wisconsin as crossover games to go along with their typical tough slate in the B1G East, the Spartans will face five teams among the preseason top 25. That sounds daunting but I’m not sold that either the Wildcats or Badgers will finish the season ranked. The out of conference docket is easier as they trade Utah State (11-2) for Tulsa (3-9) and they host Arizona State rather than playing past midnight on East Lansing time, which they did in an early-season loss at ASU last September. That’s the good news. The bad news is of their five games against preseason ranked foes, four are on the road.
It’s a Disappointing Season If: They repeat 2018. The last time they won seven games or fewer in back-to-back seasons, John L. Smith was the coach.
It’s a Successful Season If: They give themselves a chance to win double-digit games heading into the bowl. Dantonio hasn’t failed to reach 10 W’s in consecutive seasons in a decade.
Over/Under – 7.5 Wins (O -193/U +155): Despite five games against Top 25 teams, four on the road, the Spartans are only underdogs in three contests heading into the season and by only three points in one of them (at Wisky). They are big dogs at Michigan and Ohio State, but have actually fared better on the road against the Wolverines (4-1 in last five in Ann Arbor) and the Bucks (2-1 in past three in Columbus) than at home (lost last two vs. Michigan, last seven vs. OSU), while they’ve won the past two at home against Penn State. The schedule is more favorable than it was last season (won seven regular-season games), the defense will be as good (maybe better), and the offense simply can’t be as bad with a healthy Brian Lewerke (2,793 passing yards, 20 TDs, 559 rushing yards in 2017). That all adds up to an easy over on the 2019 Spartans. Want another reason? Under Dantonio, MSU has won seven games or fewer four times before 2018 and each time they’ve responded with at least nine wins the following season, with an average of 10.75 wins.
Daniel Mogollon is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America. He is also a voter for the Thorpe and the Rotary Lombardi Award, as well as the Latino Sports MVP Awards.
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