There was little doubt that 2017 was going to be a defining season in the Mark Dantonio era. With a ton of pressure from the outside world and a crazy 3-9 season in the rearview mirror, either Dantonio would sink his own ship or right it.
It didn’t take long to see that a program in turmoil had banded together in an “us vs. them” mentality that worked well for the Spartans.
The result was a 10-3 season, wins over two of the biggest names in the Big Ten East division and a very different narrative heading in to the 2018 offseason.
But, with so much happening around the program last season, what lessons were learned that would apply to 2018?
Let’s take a look at what lessons we believe will matter going forward.
Adversity Wears Well on Spartans
No team in the Big Ten had a worse 2017 offseason than the Spartans did. There were awful off-field allegations, charges and convictions. There were players suspended, kicked off the team and transfers.
Yet, when the dust settled on the 2017 season, a team that seemingly was in disarray nearly won the East division. A team that won just three games in 2016 and suffered through a very public and ugly offseason managed to right the ship right away and went 7-2 in Big Ten play.
There were wins over rival Michigan and a red-hot Penn Stat program and a massive blowout of Washington State in the Holiday bowl for redemption of not being selected for a seemingly better positioned bowl game.
At every step of the way in 2017 there was major adversity. Instead of folding, Mark Dantonio’s crew rallied together and came away with a season few saw coming from the outside world.
It was certainly a positive lesson for everyone involved — from what not to do off the field to how to grow together in the face of major doubters. By the end of it all, MSU football felt like it was closer to being back in the Big Ten title picture than ever before. The lesson of the 2017 season won’t soon be forgotten.
1-QB System Works Best
If you would’ve told anyone back in the 2016 offseason that Brian Lewerke would be the answer to MSU’s quarterback hopes, few would’ve believed you. Yet, the pattern of quarterback-by-committee not working and then getting a leader to emerge and make the team dangerous the next continued on.
No position seems to hold the keys to success or failure at Michigan State more that quarterback. It’s no coincidence that settling on one quarterback has proven to be the defining factor in offensive success at MSU.
Lewerke looked like the better option in 2016, took hold of the position in 2017 and the Spartans offense was back off to the races. The sophomore signal caller threw for over 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns compared to just 7 interceptions. Compare that to the three-headed QB monster in 2016 that ended up with just 2,668 yards, completed just 57 percent of their passes and had just 19 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.
Coming up the ranks from a walk-on to starter in the face of supposed stiff competition from Damion Terry, Tyler O’Connor and emerging as the steadying force showed that picking one quarterback and sticking with them is a recipe for better chances at success in East Lansing.
Lewerke established himself as the starter and has two more years to lead this team forward. If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that Lewerke is not to be underestimated, just like the Spartans as a whole.
This Offense has to be More Than Lewerke
As impressive as Brian Lewerke was last season, for large swaths of 2017 he was the only offense that mattered for Michigan State.
In fact, not only did Lewerke lead the way through the air, he was the Spartans leading rusher for much of the year too. Only a late-season surge from L.J. Scott, who only had three 100-yard games on the entire season, allowed him to overtake Lewerke on the ground.
Scott finished the season with 898 yards to Lewerke’s 559 yards, with Scott leading the TD category 8 to 5.
While it was nice to see the team back to winning against quality competition, the Spartans were torn apart by teams who could shut Lewerke down. Ohio State tore apart MSU and more importantly, held Lewerke completely in check. He rushed for just 2 total yards and passed for just 131 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns in the 48-3 loss.
Can Scott become the star everyone thought he might have been last season, this season? If MSU wants to become a true East division and Big Ten title contender, it has to re-establish a tough run game that doesn’t rely on Lewerke to be the leading rusher for most of the season.