Who are they?
The Dantonio era at Michigan State (2007-now) has followed some symmetrical ebbs and flows. The Spartans will take a minor rebuilding year full of close losses and ugly wins to build the necessary depth and experience to string together a sequence of seasons where they compete for a Big Ten title.
This is what good developmental programs do.
The one constant, in the seasons where they compete, is the presence of competent quarterback play which creates a dynamic enough offense to complement a perennially elite defense. The seasons that would be considered a success under Dantonio — 2008 with Brian Hoyer at Quarterback; 2010 & 2011 with Kirk Cousins at Quarterback; and 2013-15 with Connor Cook at Quarterback — all followed this same pattern.
Lewerke was on his way to being Dantonio’s next great game mananger but then 2018 happened
The 2017 season, with Brain Lewerke at quarterback, led us to believe that the Lewerke-era was going to be in line with the Hoyer/Cousins/Cook era. But, things went off the rails for MSU’s offense and Lewerke in 2018.
The home losses in 2018 to Michigan, Northwestern and Ohio State were certainly bothersome, but the end of the season combination — of almost losing at home to a horrific Rutgers team on Thanksgiving Weekend and the loss to Oregon in the Red Box Bowl — was deflating. The offensive ineptitude in those last two games hit a critical point for Michigan State fans.
In the 14-10 win over Rutgers, with Lewerke out, Michigan State gained only 310 yards on offense and they averaged a paltry 3.9 yard per pass and 3.6 yards per rush. In the 7-6 loss to Oregon, the Spartans averaged only 4.3 yards per pass and 3.5 yards per run.
At that point, Michigan State’s offensive issues felt systemic. The offense in 2018 was a bad combination of slow-paced, bland and predictable. MSU’s offensive S&P ranking of 112 reflected how truly awful the Spartans were on offense. Some of the ineptitude could be blamed on a rash of injuries that caused 10 different offensive starters to miss a total of 48 games, including a mid-October shoulder injury to Lewerke that caused him to alter his throwing motion and sit out games later in the season. However, don’t let the injuries fool you, bad scheme was the primary culprit for Michigan State’s woes.
MSU’s defense, on the other hand, finished a championship-caliber No 2 in Defensive S&P.
Dantonio’s stubbornness rules the day
MSU’s fanbase, as expected, demanded changes on offense, but their dreams of bringing in an offensive guru like former North Texas (and Current USC) offensive coordinator Graham Harrell or former Maryland offensive coordinator/interim coach Matt Canada died in January when Dantonio (in stubbornly frustrating Dantonio fashion) announced that he would make no external changes to the staff. Instead, he merely reshuffled the offensive coaching staff.
- Brad Salem: promoted from quarterback coach to offensive coordinator and running back coach
- Dave Warner: demoted from co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach to quarterbacks coach only
- Jim Bollman: demoted from co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach to the offensive line coach only.
- Mark Staten: moved from offensive line coach to tight ends coach
This context is important for previewing the Illini’s November 9th game against Michigan State in East Lansing. If these changes work and MSU is rolling into Mid-November with a chance to win the Big Ten, then the Illini’s chances of winning are close to impossible. On the other hand, if the offense continues to hold MSU back and the losses mount in September and October, then the Illini will have a good chance of beating the Spartans.
With that in mind, let’s preview MSU’s Offense, Defense, and Special Teams:
Brad Salem Philosophy
Until the season kickoffs, the specifics of Salem’s offense remains a mystery. The spring game was intentionally sterile but all indications are that the Spartans will run a more new age version of what they ran before.
“Coach Salem has more of a newer age offense, and that definitely shows through his play calling,” Lewerke said. “Reads, RPO’s, that type of stuff. We tried to keep it pretty basic. Obviously when we were down, Coach Salem wanted to call more. Coach D kind of held him back.”
Players to Watch
In 2018, Lewerke, a senior from Phoenix, passed for 2,040 yards with eight TDs and 11 INTs while he rushed for 184 yard with two TDs. He was injured in the Penn State game, but this allowed redshirt sophomore Rocky Lombardi, from Clive, Iowa, Rocky Lombardi, to start three games in place of Lewerke. Lombardi threw for 738 yard with three TDs and three INTs. So, going into 2019, MSU has an experienced veteran starter in Lewerke and viable backup in Lombardi.
Injuries to LJ Scott in 2018, led to significant playing time for Connor Heyward, a junior for Duluth, GA, and La’Darius Jefferson a sophomore from Columbia, MS. In 2018, Heward led the Spartan’s rushing attack with 529 yards and 5 touchdowns. He was also frequently utilized in the Spartan’s passing game with 32 reception. Jefferson gained 255 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
The receiving corps is led by a Cody White and Darrell Stewart. Both are big tall WRs that can be a matchup nightmare for defenses. White is a 6’3” Junior from Novi, MI who caught 45 passes in 2018 while Stewart is a 6’2” Senior from Houston who caught 48 passes in 2018.
Junior Matt Dotson leads the tight ends. He is a 6’5” Junior from Kenwood, OH. He caught 14 passes in 2018 and should be a match-up problem in the middle of the field and down the seams.
The offensive line returns veteran key pieces in Cole Chewins, a Senior from Clarkston, MI; Tyler Higby, a Senior from Houston, Tx; Matt Allen, a Junior from Hinsdale, IL; and Kevin Jarvis, a Junior from Chicago, IL. They also bring in Devontae Dobbs, a freshman from Belleville, MI who was a four star prospect in the 247 composite and the number one offensive guard in the 2019 class.
Dantonio is a defensive mastermind who has constructed a defense that can simultaneously put stress on an offense’s run game and pass game. They will almost always be ready to play the run by keeping safeties close to the line of scrimmage. With the pass, their cornerbacks are constantly harassing opposing receivers at the line of scrimmage and playing press man coverage. Smart Football’s Chris Brown explains the crux’s of Dantonio’s defense.
Down after down, Michigan State lines up in what looks like the same basic, predictable front, with apparently the same coverage behind it: a “4-3 Over” front paired with “Quarters,” which is also known as “Cover 4.” ...While it’s a zone coverage, it doesn’t merely call for four defenders to drop to a deep zone, as the name might seem to imply. It’s played with considerably more nuance, particularly at Michigan State...Unlike most teams that use Quarters coverage, though, Michigan State challenges receivers by putting its cornerbacks in tight press coverage..MSU’s scheme depends on the safeties, who have to make the most adjustments. They begin much closer to the line than most teams’ safeties, usually around eight or nine yards deep
Players to Watch
The Spartans bring the key pieces from a 2018 defensive line that was one of the best in the country. They held opponents to 77 yards per game on the ground, the best in the country. At defensive end, they are led by All-American Kenny Willekes, a senior from Grand Rapids, MI, and by Jacub Panasiuk, a Junior from Roselle, IL. In the middle, they have another All-American caliber player in Raequan William, a 6’4” 303 LBS defensive tackle from Chicago, IL. Joining Williams in the middle is Naquan Jones, a 6’4’ 338 LBS nose tackle from Evanston, IL
The heart of the Michigan State defense is Joe Bachie, an All-American caliber middle linebacker from Brook Park, OH. He is joined by Tryiq Thompson, a senior from Detroit, MI., at the SAM linebacker spot. Antjuan Simmons, a junior from Ann Arbor, MI will play the weakside linebacker/rush end hybrid position that Malik McDowell perfected a few years ago.
The Spartans secondary is anchored by the safeties who frequently come in on run support. Xavier Henderson, a sophomore from Reynoldsburg, OH, and David Dowell, a senior from North Ridgeville, OH are expected to be the starters at safety.
MSU’s corners are frequently given the unenviable task of playing press man coverage — a feast or famine strategy that allows the safeties help in the run game. Josiah Scott, a senior from Hamilton, Oh. has found himself on several All-Big Ten and pre-season All-American lists. Scott is capable of completely neutralizing the best receivers in the Big Ten. Jose Butler, a senior from Mesquite, TX should occupy the other corner spot.
Michigan State Special Teams
Junior Matt Coghlin, from Cincinnatti, Oh. made 18 field goals on 22 attempts last year. He also ran in a fake field goal for a touchdown against Indiana.
At Punter, MSU has two options: Senior Jake Hartbarger, from Waterville, OH, only played a few games after suffering a season ending injury against Arizona State in week 2 and Redshirt Sophomore Tyler Hunt, from Gobles, MI, who took over after Hartburger’s injury. Prior to the injury, Hartbarger averaged 48 yards a punt while Hunt averaged 40 yard per punt. So, expect a position battle in camp.
So much can happen between now and early November so my prediction will be based on four of the different possible scenarios going into week 10.
The Depressing “12pm est/11am cst kickoff on Big Ten Network” Scenario
If MSU does not look Big Ten Championship caliber and the Illini are not in bowl contention, then MSU wins 14-13. Everyone is sad. Winter is coming.
The Happy Scenario
If MSU does not look Big Ten Championship caliber, but the Illini are realistically in bowl contention, then Illinois wins 21-10. At this point, Lovie would be 2-0 against Dantonio and the protests from MSU fans to nab current Cincinnati HC and former Ohio State DC, Luke Fickell — before another Big Ten school grabs him — will be loud and boisterous.
The Horrifying Scenario
If MSU looks Big Ten Championship caliber, but the Illini are not in bowl contention and Lovie’s hot seat is scorching, then hide the children because MSU will win 52-3. It will feel like homecoming 2013 when MSU beat the Illini 49-3.
The Satisfying “wow the Illini looked respectable on a national Fox telecast” Scenario
Before explaining this scenario keep in mind that since the Big Ten entered the new deal with Fox in 2017, the Illini have yet to play on a national Fox telecast. Even lowly Rutgers —armed with their lies about all the NYC eyeballs they bring to the Big Ten table — has been on two Fox national telecasts since 2017.
Anyway, if MSU looks Big Ten Championship caliber and the Illini are seriously in bowl contention, MSU will pull away late in a hotly contested 38-27 game.
As alluded to earlier, if both teams are having good seasons(relatively speaking) coming in, then the Illini could finally end up on a Fox national broadcast with Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt. In this psuedo-fantasy scenario, Johnson and Klatt will so impressed with the Illini’s improvement under Lovie that they will start to tell all their CFB media friends about what Lovie is building at Illinois. They will also go on podcasts spreading the gospel of Lovie. Then, people start respecting the Illini. Then, recruits get excited about the Illini and so on and so forth.