It was a disappointing 2016 season for Notre Dame followed by a long offseason spent thinking about said disappointment. Compared to Michigan State, though, the going has been smooth. Not only did the Spartans finish a game worse than the Irish last year, even with the victory in their head-to-head matchup, but this offseason has been a tumultuous one for the Michigan State program. Four players have been dismissed from the team amid sexual assault allegations.
The Spartans started last year ranked No. 11 in the Coaches Poll and No. 12 in the AP’s. A year earlier, they had won the Big Ten and made it into the first College Football Playoff. Expectations were high for the 2016 season, higher than a No. 11/12 preseason ranking would belie.
A cruise-control win over Furman followed by a game of two halves victory over Notre Dame lifted Michigan State to No. 8 in both polls, starting to fit more in line with those best-laid plans. Then it all came tumbling down.
The first indications of that collapse came in the final 17 minutes of the 36-28 win over the Irish. Leading 36-7, the Spartans gave up three touchdowns on three consecutive possessions. With all the momentum on the Notre Dame sideline, Michigan State finally managed a defensive stop with 3:30 remaining in the game, draining the clock from there.
A week later, the Spartans could not manage to find the end zone in a 30-6 loss vs. Wisconsin, starting a spiral of nine losses in 10 games, the only bright spot being a victory over Rutgers.
Unlike the Irish, Michigan State did not let opportunity after opportunity slip past. Instead, the Spartans were on the wrong end of one-possession games only three times.
WHAT MICHIGAN STATE LOST
For a program coming off a 3-9 season, the length of this list illustrates just how much of a letdown 2016 was in East Lansing. Defensive end Malik McDowell and safety Montae Nicholson both heard their names in the NFL Draft, in the second and fourth rounds, respectively. That is just a start, though.
With sophomore receiver Donnie Corley (33 catches for 453 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman) among those dismissed this offseason, the Spartans said farewell to their top four receivers. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor graduated, as well, though his 58.8 completion percentage and 16-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio hardly pushed the offense forward.
Including McDowell and Nicholson, Michigan State also lost five of its top eight tacklers. McDowell managed 5.5 tackles for loss while linebacker and No. 3 tackler Riley Bullough added 6.5 more. Cornerbacks Demetrious Cox and Darian Hicks both make that top-eight cutoff, but more notably contributed a combined 13 pass breakups, too.
WHAT MICHIGAN STATE GAINED
The Spartans signed 24 recruits to finish with the country’s No. 33 class, per rivals.com. That class included 4 four-star prospects, most notably receiver Hunter Rison. Given the exodus of receivers, Rison may be called upon for contributions early in his career, perhaps by his third game in a primetime matchup against a longtime rival.
Mark Dantonio enters his 11th season in East Lansing, and a 3-9 season did nothing to the temperature of his figurative seat, especially not a season after coming within one game of appearing in the national championship.
Discounting last season, Dantonio amassed 87 wins in the previous nine years. Rough math obviously indicates that is nearly 10 wins annually. Suffice it to say he had established a high-level program with the Spartans and will look to trend back toward that par this season.
Without a returning receiver who recorded more than a dozen catches last season, and without a quarterback who competed in more than two games, it makes sense to think Michigan State will turn to its running game in 2017. That makes even more sense when considering the Spartans return sophomore left guard Tyler Higby (six starts in 10 games before an ankle injury) and junior left tackle Cole Chewins (three starts in 12 games) to pave the way for running back LJ Scott. The junior gained steam as last season progressed, finishing with 994 yards on 184 rushes, good for an average carry of 5.4 yards.
Once Scott establishes the Spartan running game and a theoretical play-action threat, the eyes will turn to sophomore Brian Lewerke. Earlier it was said 2016 starter Tyler O’Connor left room for improvement. That was recognized five games into last season, when Lewerke was given the chance to start despite being only a freshman. A week later, he broke his leg, ending his season and seemingly cementing Michigan State’s struggles. In that brief action, Lewerke did not exactly dazzle, completing 31-of-57 passes (54.4 percent) for 381 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
But he earned enough coaching faith to be given the chance. He will have it again this year.
This seems hard to fathom for a Dantonio-coached team, but the defense might be a Spartan weakness for the second consecutive year. For context, Michigan State allowed 27.75 points and 395 yards per game last season. Now Dantonio looks to replace most of a secondary, possibly relying on a true freshman to start at cornerback in Josiah Scott.
If the Spartan defense does buckle down, it will be on the backs of its defensive line’s interior and its veteran linebacker core. Sophomore tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk saw action early in their debut campaigns, combining for 42 tackles with Williams also chipping in two sacks of the defense’s 11 total sacks. Yes, Michigan State managed three fewer sacks than Notre Dame’s paltry pass rush a season ago.
A level behind them, senior Chris Frey led the team with 96 tackles last year and is flanked by junior Andrew Dowell (fourth with 67) and sophomore Joe Bachle.
Michigan State faces a tough schedule this season, certainly one more difficult than a program looking to rebound would prefer. The Spartans will have to travel to Michigan, to Minnesota and to Ohio State, as well as host Penn State, not to mention Notre Dame.
To top a win total over/under of 6.5, they may need to convert two chances for wins at the end of the season, vs. Maryland and at Rutgers. Naturally, slipping past that season-long metric would set up Michigan State to return to a bowl game. It may not be a return to the College Football Playoff, but capitalizing on extra practice time and then entering an offseason with a win — and much better vibes than was the case this past year — would be the first step to the Spartans returning to Dantonio’s standard.
Yesterday: Boston College
Tomorrow: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
Sunday, 27th: Six days until Notre Dame kicks off. You can make it that far, right?