Previewing The Enemy: Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State rolls into Happy Valley Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Beaver Stadium. Both Penn State and the Spartans will try to rebound from losses against Ohio State and Northwestern, respectively.
The Nittany Lions were handed their first loss of the 2017 season by Ohio State by a single point before heading to East Lansing and dropping another game to the Spartans. This season, the Nittany Lions are coming off of a one-point loss to Ohio State again, but will hope that a Stripe Out atmosphere and a bye week will be enough to avoid a post-White Out hangover.
The most coveted trophy in college football is on the line, meaning both teams will certainly come out with a whole lot of energy.
Like Urban Meyer’s program in Columbus, Michigan State has been hit with scandal recently. Larry Nassar was at the center of a sexual abuse scandal that shook the institution to its core — Michigan State still doesn’t have a permanent president.
Mark Dantonio, the head coach of the Spartans, has seen his program also face sexual abuse allegations, although he claims to have been unaware that three of his players assaulted a woman in an apartment bathroom in 2017. Amid all of this, Dantonio had his contract extended through the 2023 season.
Dantonio’s team has had a disappointing start to the 2018 campaign, to say the least. In 2016, the Spartans were surprisingly bad and put up a 3-9 record. In 2017, Michigan State was surprisingly good, posting a 10-3 record. The Spartans were ranked No. 11 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll this year, but things haven’t gone according to plan.
Since that preseason poll, they’ve lost to Arizona State and Northwestern on the road. Those two losses were enough to push Michigan State right out of the top 25, especially given that Northwestern has had its own struggles.
Brian Lewerke leads the Michigan State offense from the quarterback position. The quarterback went 31-51 through the air for 329 yards, one touchdown, and one interception against Northwestern last week. Lewerke has thrown for just six touchdowns but has also thrown six picks this year. Still, Michigan State’s quarterback is talented and elusive enough to cause problems for Brent Pry’s defense.
The rushing game has been pretty dismal for the Spartans. Sophomore running back Connor Heyward leads all rushers with 147 yards on 42 carries, an average of 3.5 yards per carry. Heyward has rushed for three touchdowns in 2018, which also leads the team.
LJ Scott, the talented senior running back, has missed play since suffering a leg injury against Arizona State. He is listed as probable for Saturday’s game against the Nittany Lions. On Wednesday, Scott was cited for three driving infractions and it wasn’t the first time he’s faced legal issues on the road.
Michigan State has one glaring weakness: the offensive line. That offensive line has allowed twelve sacks, compared to Penn State’s nine. The Spartans ran for just 96 yards against Northwestern last week. In the loss to Arizona State, Michigan State put up just 63 yards on the ground. Penn State will have both Shane Simmons and CJ Thorpe back on the defensive line this weekend, and those two could wreak havoc for the struggling Spartan line.
Three fairly experienced receivers lead the charge out wide. Senior Felton Davis III leads the team with 23 catches for 374 yards and a couple of scores. The big-play threat in East Lansing is Cody White, and he’s come up with 20 receptions, 300 yards, and two touchdowns in 2018. Junior Darrell Stewart Jr. rounds out the trio, providing a safe target for Lewerke to look to every drive.
The strength of Michigan State is its defense. The Spartans are allowing just 23.4 points per contest. Part of that success defensively comes from the incredibly stingy run defense that is giving up just 33.8 rushing yards per game. Michigan State leads the FBS in rushing defense, and the second place squad — San Diego State — is giving up 61.8 yards per game.
Linebacker Joe Bachie is the heart and soul of the Michigan State defense.
He has 39 total tackles, one sack, and one interception thus far in 2018. Bachie can do it all; the junior linebacker can make open-field tackles, get after the quarterback, and force turnovers. Few linebackers can say that they have a highlight reel as exciting as his, which includes an interception against Penn State in 2017.
Senior linebacker Andrew Dowell works beside Bachie and has notched 34 total tackles, including four tackles for loss and two sacks. The linebacking corps is rounded out by Ann Arbor native Antjuan Simmons, who is very solid for Dantonio’s defense early in his career.
Michigan State’s defensive line has obviously been successful this season. Kenny Willekes leads the group as a junior with four sacks and has tacked on a pick. Raequan Williams is sure to cause some problems up front, as well. Williams checks in at 6’4″ and 300 pounds and has tallied 5.5 tackles for loss this season.
The defensive back group is perhaps where Penn State can take advantage. Northwestern’s quarterback Clayton Thorson threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns against the Spartans. Although the rushing game struggling mightily against Michigan State, Northwestern was able to break out some chunk plays through the air. The Wildcats’ Kyric McGowan, for example, had just one catch on the day but ran it 77 yards for a score.
Still, Justin Layne, David Dowell, Khari Willis, Matt Morrissey, and Shakur Brown have all tallied an interception for Sparty. If the Spartans hope to slow down the dynamic Penn State offense, this defensive back unit is going to have to step up.
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About the Author
Penn State ranked just outside the top 100 in this year’s Forbes’ list of the top colleges in the United States.
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