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Michigan State Spartans Football Preview: Lessons from the 2016 season

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It’s that time of year here at talking10…you know, were we take a week-long look at every Big Ten team. Up all this week are the Michigan State Spartans.

Before you know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been, so what better way to kick off preview week than a look back to 2016.

What did this past season teach us about the 2017 version of the Michigan State Spartans? It seems like a fair question and one every good coach and player would reflect upon in the offseason.

However, for the Spartans it appears that what took place between the season and spring football is really what determines how things are going to go in 2017. Not only did a handful of players head off to the NFL, others graduated and then there were a whole heap of offseason transgressions to sift through.

So, we are going to do our best to look at what is left of the program we knew in 2016 and apply lessons to the 2017 season.

Losing Season, Losing Offseason?

Some say that losing breeds losing if you don’t stop the bleeding quickly. Then again, the Spartans went from national championship contenders to 3-9 in just one year. So perhaps there is a lot to be worried about the program on the field.

Upheaval at quarterback, inconsistent line play on both sides of the ball and injuries did MSU in big time this past season. But, things were only compounded as head coach Mark Dantonio and Co. looked to put a perplexing season behind them. The losing only continued with players transferring out of the program, others basically being kicked out of the program and then the motherload of offseason scandals in the Big Ten.

Yes, we have to talk about the fact that not one, not two, but four players managed to be brought up on charges of sexual assault in the offseason. Three players, now all gone from the team, allegedly took advantage of a girl in the bathroom at a party and after nearly five months of investigation were formally charged. They are innocent until proven guilty in the court of law, but they also wont’ be playing football at Michigan State ever again.

The three ex-players — Donnie Corley, Josh King and Demetric Vance — were all going to be vital parts to the puzzle to get back towards the top of the college football world. So was linebacker Jon Reschke, who transferred instead of getting dismissed after some apparently off-color comments directed at teammates.

Michigan State’s depletion wasn’t complete with those incidents either. That’s because defensive backs Kaleel Gains and Kenney Lyke transferred from the program in June. Just a few days later the most experienced person in said secondary, Vayante Copeland, transferred from the program as well. Those are but a few of the 11 players who transferred or were dismissed from the team.

Luckily it appears that Demetrius Cooper will still be around after avoiding jail time for violating terms of his probation in the offseason as well. That’s about the only silver lining to all of this offseason junk in East Lansing.

The hope is that the bad apples are gone and this team has grown close in the offseason. It has an uphill battle ahead of it to say the least, so they’ll need to lean on each other now more than ever if they want to get back to being a division and conference title contender.

 

Consistency at Quarterback is Key

As much as Michigan State’s offensive line play was maligned at times in 2016, it didn’t help much that there was a complete roller coaster ride happening behind them either. Senior Tyler O’Connor got the early season first crack at the starting job and failed.

Then it was split time between redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke and junior Damion Terry, only to see the coaching staff figure out what we all knew from spring football — Lewerke deserved to be the starter. He played well in three starts against Northwestern, Maryland and Michigan before getting injured in the in-state rivalry game and never seeing the field again. Lewerke finished the season 31 of 57 passing for 381 yards and two touchdowns to one interception. While they aren’t mind-blowing numbers, it was a positive start in a sea of mediocre play from upperclassmen.

Lewerke also seemed to have a knack for sparking the offense just when it needed it most. He’s the presumed starter unless something crazy happens in fall camp. But, experience from Damion Terry and Messiah deWeaver’s continued growth also likely means this group could be better overall should the worst thing happen.

What worries me is that this coaching staff has seen the scenario that played out in 2016 over and over again — having to replace a veteran starter, going with the senior option that wasn’t awe-inspiring and having to switch to the young kid anyway. What should give hope is that said young player has usually turned in to a really good long-term option once settled in to the starting job.

Will see if the promise of Lewerke’s 2016 pays off in 2017, but MSU fans better hope it does or it could be another long season in East Lansing.

Michigan State Is Teetering on a Recruiting Tight Rope

Sorry to say it, but Michigan State isn’t a blue-blood program. It doesn’t have the sustained success and recruiting prowess of a Clemson. It doesn’t have the academic and athletic reputation of a Stanford. Heck it is third fiddle in attention (some could say fourth) in its own division within the Big Ten.

Yet, in previous years the Spartans were making big noise on the recruiting trail and things were looking solid for the future. After all, hauling in multiple four and five-star players should’ve taken this program to a new level of sustained success.

Instead, the Spartans have really gambled over the past three years in an attempt to reach that next level and if 2016 was any indication, that gamble has failed miserably. How else do you explain hauling in

Sure, it is nice to make headlines on the recruiting trail and go toe-to-toe with the blue-bloods of college football recruiting, but it appears Michigan State did so betting on the wrong players.

Malik McDowell was a 5-star talent on the field and a mess for the locker room. Multiple reports indicated much of the chemistry and togetherness that MSU teams of the past have been built on was gone over the past two seasons. A lot of the fingers were pointed to some of the more high-profile.

The fact of the matter is, Michigan State got to the College Football Playoff in large part due to its ability to know who it was and what players made it successful. In the final lead up to that season it began to recruit players it normally wouldn’t — more in terms of character than talent. MSU took chances on character for chances to bring in top-level talent.

McDowell was a mess for the Spartans off the field and just look above for the mess that players like Donnie Corley and others became too. Simply put, Michigan State dropped the ball on the recruiting trail in an attempt to become something it wasn’t.

If anything, 2016 should be a lesson to Dantonio and his coaching staff that reaching for the stars just because isn’t a good idea. It should be time to get back to the basics of what brought them to the party while also selecting the bigger named players that also fit the hard-working mold this program has built.

Let’s see how things go, but if there’s going to be a downfall to Dantonio’s tenure, it could be the extra and unnecessary chances he took on the recruiting trail.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Early Big Ten results remind us why bowl season matters

Don’t tell Iowa, Michigan State and Purdue that their bowl games and wins were meaningless, because they sure weren’t.

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Bowl season is usually a cruel, cruel mistress to the Big Ten. Let’s just say hopes always start high and results crash fans of the teams in the conference back down to earth quickly.

There are a myriad of reasons and excuses often given, and some of them are valid (or at least used to be). Examples usually include the fact that 90 percent of the games are played well outside of the Big Ten footprint and the old reliable of huge disparities in caliber of opponents (addressed a bit by the last change in bowl alignment).

So, as the 2017-18 bowl season got underway it was hard to expect much from the Big Ten. After all, the conference teams managed to go just 3-7 last year and only one of those three wins was very meaningful (Wisconsin over Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl).

Then the games were played and we here in Big Ten country have been reminded just how meaningful bowl season really is.

Purdue not only got to a bowl game, but it won its bowl game against another offense-first team in Arizona. Sophomore quarterback Elijah Sindelar overcame injury and threw for nearly 400 yards (396 to be exact) and four touchdowns, while running back D.J. Knox had 101 yards on 11 carries.

If you believe bowl games don’t matter, just talk to anyone on the Purdue or Arizona sidelines following that game. Going 7-6 in season one under Jeff Brohm was huge, but most importantly it sets new expectations for the program’s floor going forward.

When is the last time there were anything but dreadful expectations surrounding the Purdue football program? If anything, that should tell you just how meaningful bowl games are.

But, it was just Purdue’s three-point win out in the Foster Farms Bowl that showcased the importance of winning so-called meaningless bowl games.

Michigan State not only rebounded from a 3-9 season to go 9-3, but it just beat a fellow top 25 program in Washington State. Sure, you can point to Luke Falk being out of the game, but the Spartans looked like the Spartans that climbed their way to the College Football Playoff just two years ago again.

Dantonio’s crew pounded the ball down the throat of Wazzu’s smaller defensive line and that led to LJ Scott putting up 110 yards on just 18 carries. Meanwhile, the Spartans defense held the Cougars high-scoring offense to just 17 points in the 42-17 win in the Holiday Bowl.

Think MSU will be overlooked by bowl games in the future again?

Even Iowa, who had the most maddening up and down season of any Big Ten team, pulled off a win in the opening game for a Big Ten team this bowl season.

It wasn’t always pretty, but in a matchup of two 7-5 teams, what else would you expect? Most importantly, the game showed that Iowa could win a close game against a quality defense. For a team full of young players at key positions, it’s a win that builds momentum heading in to the offseason.

All three wins set up increase expectations for next season and there’s nothing better than expecting quality football and increased competition within the Big Ten at all.

Of course, the rest of the Big Ten teams in bowl games have some huge matchups to play in.

It’s a nice start to reversing the trend of horrible bowl seasons for the conference, but there’s a lot of work still to be done for the rest of the conference. With three teams in New Year’s Six bowl games, winning them puts the conference at the forefront of the offseason discussion and as much as we hate to admit it — perception is reality these days in the college football world.

That was the lesson we were supposed to take away from the College Football Playoff committee’s selection of Alabama over an actual conference champion, right?

With a snub from the College Football Playoff committee this season, a huge turnaround in bowl game results would mean a whole lot to the reputation – fair or not – of the conference going forward.

Let’s see if the early momentum can be maintained by the big dogs of the B1G.

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5 Reasons to watch Michigan State vs. Washington State in the Holiday Bowl

Michigan State may feel jilted by the Florida bowl games, but it has one of the most intriguing bowl matchups in the Big Ten.

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It’s the Holiday season, so it’s also a fitting time to talk all things Holiday Bowl too. It also means talking Big Ten in the bowl season and that’s what we’re here to do this week.

Previous Previews: Orange Bowl |

While the conference champion, Ohio State, was passed over for the College Football Playoff, there are still plenty of things to love about bowl season if you’re a fan of a team in or of the conference as a whole.

Up next on our week-long look at the Big Ten in bowl season is my personal favorite non-Rose Bowl game — the Holiday Bowl.

It’s a game featuring the team who finished just behind Ohio State in the East division, and that would be a resurgent Michigan State Spartans squad.

So, why should you be tuning in even if you aren’t the Go Green, Go White type? We’ve got 5 reasons for you.

 

Wazzu Offense, Meet MSU Defense

Sometimes style-clashes make for really bad bowl games, and then there’s the rare occasion in which those opposing styles make for must-see TV. Such is the case with the Holiday Bowl this year, as the high-flying offense of Washington State takes on the Spartan Dawg defense.

After a season of struggles, Michigan State’s defense returned to its much more normal nasty self in 2017. MSU allowed jus over a touchdown less on defense this season (27.8 to 20.3 points per game), while also finishing second in the Big Ten in rush defense (101.2 yards per game) and gave up just 13 passing touchdowns to 13 interceptions on the season.

Washington State’s offense kept it’s reputation for big numbers alive too. Senior quarterback Luke Falk passed for over 3,500 yards and had 30 touchdowns to 13 interceptions on the season. That was good enough for the No. 2 passing offense in the country this season.

Those 13 interceptions by Michigan State vs. the pass-happy Mike Leach offense? Something will have to give between these two, so who will blink first and open the floodgates to the other? It’s the answer that should have you tuning in .

Two Words: Mike Leach

There simply isn’t a more honest and less self-important head coach in college football than Washington State’s Mike Leach. He’s also perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea.

He’s certainly a thinking-man’s coach.

But, if you are looking for entertainment value, he’s your guy. Whether it is innovating offense or hilariously awkward press conferences, Leach has you covered. Should this game get out of hand one way or the other, Leach should there to keep us all entertained.

Crazy Finishes Are the Norm for Holiday Bowl

If the Spartans and Cougars aren’t your fancy this bowl season, just remember that the Holiday Bowl has a long and storied history of some of the best finishes and craziest moments in bowl game history.

Each of the last three games, not coincidentally featuring the first of the Big Ten tie-in games, have been ones that were won by under a touchdown. Nebraska lost a three-point offensive slugfest in 2014 to USC, Wisconsin got revenge on the Trojans win a 23-21 win the next season and last year saw Minnesota upset these very same Washington State Cougars.

Add in some of the craziest bowl game finishes, comebacks and upsets in history and this one has a reputation for expecting and delivering the unexpected.

With one high-powered offense and a pair of good defenses in the mix, who knows what will happen in San Diego on Dec. 28.

Washington State is No Slouch on Defense Either

Lest you believe only one team can play defense, Wazzu had one of the best defensive groups in the Pac-12 this season. It isn’t all flash on offense and winning crazy high-scoring affairs in Pullman, Wash. these days.

The Cougars allowed just 24.4 points per game in the scoring-happy Pac-12 (which has nothing on the Big 12), while allowing teams to rush for just 146.1 yards per game (4th in the Pac-12) and ranking No. 1 in the conference against the pass (167.4).

Can Lewerke Do It All Against a Top Team Again?

While the Big Ten’s Quarterback of the Year was OSU’s dual-threat J.T. Barrett, one could argue few quarterbacks meant as much to their team as MSU’s Brian Lewerke did in 2017.

Lewerke came out of nowhere as a dual-threat option and a really good one at that. So much so that he led the Spartans in rushing until a late burst by running back L.J. Scott. Lewerke finished the 2017 season with 486 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground.

But, he wasn’t just a revelation on the ground, as he completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for over 2,500 yards and 17 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions. It was his combination of rushing ability and passing prowess that made him a dangerous quarterback and something the Spartans really haven’t had a quarterback for most of the Dantonio era.

We also saw Lewerke do some of his best work late in the season against two of the better Big Ten defenses in back-to-back games against Northwestern and Penn State. He had a combined 845 yards and 6 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions.

But, he also had a bad day against Michigan, throwing for just 94 yards in the bitter in-state rivalry game.

Overall, Lewerke put this offense on his back for most of the season, but doing that one more time against a really good run defense should be interesting to say the least.

Game Info:

Who: Michigan State (9-3) vs. Washington State (9-3)
When: Dec. 28, 9 p.m. ET (FS1)
Where: SDCCU Stadium, San Diego, CA

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Dantonio, Harbaugh jab at each other after bowl game selections

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Rivalries have no offseason, and that certainly is the case for Michigan State when it comes to in-state rival Michigan. That’s especially the case when bowl season rolled around in 2017.

That’s because Michigan is headed to Tampa Bay to play in the Outback Bowl, while Michigan State is off the…gasp…horrific site of San Diego for its bowl game.

No. 16 Michigan State is slated to play No. 18 Washington State in easily the best non-New Years Six bowl game the Big Ten has, while Michigan gets South Carolina. Despite the disparity in location and quality of opponent, some felt the Spartans were slighted.

Dantonio was asked if the program felt slighted by not playing on New Year’s Day, and this was his response:

It was a clear dig at the Wolverines, whom the Spartans have owned since Dantonio took over as head coach at Michigan State.

Harbaugh just couldn’t let that go, responding back on Twitter on Monday.

Backhanded compliment much?

It’s clear these two don’t get along much, because usually these things get settled behind closed doors. Instead, Harbaugh took a very public jab at Dantonio and all the off-field issues that took place over the last year and a half.

Who will get the ultimate last word? Well, this season that was certainly Michigan State. Not only did the Spartans beat Michigan, but they finished second in the East division, while Michigan faltered to an 8-4 finish in the regular season.

If anything, this should fuel an offseason of rivalry fun between these two programs.

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Big Ten’s College Football Playoff picture gets clearer in Week 2

After a weekend of near chaos in the Big Ten East, how did the Big Ten stack up in Week 2 of the College Football playoff rankings?

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The College Football Playoff picture is getting clearer for the Big Ten…or is it? Week 2 of the CFB Playoff rankings came out on Tuesday night and there were six B1G teams in the mix.

Our Andy Coppens comes at you with reaction to how the Big Ten teams were ranked and the paths forward for said teams. Can Wisconsin control its own destiny? Is the Big Ten East division really out of the playoff picture?

Don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more of these reaction videos and plenty of extra talk of all things B1G.

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