Season Record: 4-1
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (94-43, 11th year at Michigan State)
2017 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 26th
2016 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 57th
Last year’s 3-9 record was head coach Mark Dantonio’s worst in a decade at Michigan State, and just the second losing season of his tenure. But the Spartans seem to have bounced back and are coming off a 14-10 upset of No. 7-ranked Michigan at the Big House. Coupled with a hard fought 17-10 win over Iowa, Michigan State appears primed to make life difficult for Big Ten East contenders Penn State and Ohio State.
Uncertainty at the quarterback position was part of the problem for Michigan State last season, as the Spartans saw three different signal callers take snaps under center. But sophomore Brian Lewerke has taken the reins this season, with 1,057 passing yards, 9 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions to go along with a 61.7 completion percentage. Lewerke also happens to be the Spartans’ leading rusher with 309 rushing yards on 53 carries, presenting a dual threat that we haven’t quite seen from previous quarterbacks under Dantonio.
The fact that Lewerke is their leading rusher also hints at the struggles of their rushing attack. Junior running back L.J. Scott has been limited to 214 rushing yards on 58 carries with one touchdown, and missed the Michigan game due to injury. Scott has also struggled to hold onto the football, having fumbled three times in the first three games of the season, including two lost at the goal line. He has split carries with junior Madre London (38 carries, 155 rushing yards, 1 touchdown) and senior Gerald Holmes (38 carries, 132 rushing yards).
Michigan State hasn’t exactly been lighting up through the air either, averaging 212.4 passing yards per game, which ranks 80th nationally. But Lewerke has an arsenal of receivers at his disposal, headlined by junior wideout Felton Davis III. The Spartans’ leading receiver had a breakout game against Iowa, hauling in 9 receptions for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Behind Davis, look out for sophomore wide receiver Darrell Stewart, Jr., who has 20 receptions, 212 receiving yards, and one touchdown on the season. More than a dozen different Spartans have at least one reception, which speaks to the depth of receiving options.
The offensive line is young, with three underclassman starters, but senior center Brian Allen is the anchor. They’ve only allowed six sacks through five games, but the Spartans are also allowing almost six tackles for loss per game to opposing defenses.
Verdict: The Spartans rank 13th nationally in time of possession and 46th in third down conversions, as they’ve had to grind out games on offense due to a lack of explosiveness and a rushing attack that stops and starts. Normally, this would mean a close game, but Minnesota isn’t remotely healthy on defense. If the Gopher offense can’t stay on the field and put points on the board — a tall task against Michigan State’s defense, but more on that in a minute — Minnesota will simply get worn down on defense.
That signature Mark Dantonio defense has returned. The Spartans rank 12th nationally in rushing defense (97.2 rushing yards allowed per game), 13th in passing defense (161.4 passing yards allowed per game), and 13th in scoring defense (16.4 points allowed per game). Considering the Gophers were held to three points in the second half against Purdue last week, I’d say they’re in trouble against Michigan State.
You’ll be hearing the name Joe Bachie a lot. The sophomore linebacker leads the team with 44 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 interception, and 1 fumble recovery. He is a disruptive force on the Spartan defense and has been particularly exceptional the last two weeks against Iowa and Michigan, tallying a combined 19 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss.
Junior linebacker Andrew Dowell (31 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack) and sophomore defensive end Kenny Willekes are two other key cogs in the Spartans’ defensive front. Willekes has emerged as a threat off the edge, with 26 tackles, 6 tackles for loss (the most of any Spartan defender), 2 sacks, and 3 quarterback hurries. Michigan State limited Iowa to 19 rushing yards on 25 attempts, so the Gophers, who have struggled to run the football, have their work cut out for them against this defensive front.
Junior safety Khari Willis, the team’s second leading tackle, is the standout in the secondary, with 34 tackles, 2 pass break-ups, and 2 passes defended. But Michigan State has youth and inexperience in the defensive backfield, especially at the cornerback position. The Spartans are vulnerable in the vertical passing game, as Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush proved when was able to throw it over the top of the secondary and extend drives. But I don’t think Minnesota has the wide receivers to take advantage of that.
Verdict: I just don’t see this going well at all for the Gophers. Minnesota is short-handed at wide receiver, so I doubt they’ll be able to stretch the field and open up running lanes with a successful passing attack. The Gophers have faced far worse defensive fronts and struggled, so their chances of getting Rodney Smith or Shannon Brooks going are slim to none.
Prediction: Michigan State 31, Minnesota 7. Unless the Gophers show some life on offense against a tough Spartan defense, I don’t like their chances of being able to keep the game close, especially with a depleted secondary.