On the surface, Sparty bears a lot of resemblance to the Minnesota Gophers team that gave the Cougs so much trouble last year — an excellent, physical defense paired with a mediocre offense.
McLain Moberg from our friends at The Only Colors was kind enough to answer some questions for us about the Spartans, who come into the game 9-3 after winning just three games in 2016.
CougCenter: How was Michigan State able to turn it around from the mess that was 2016?
The Only Colors: Oh man where do I start really. The 2016 football season was a complete disaster. The Spartans were coming off a year in which they won the Big Ten Championship against Iowa and made a College Football Playoff appearance. While Michigan State was losing a few key components I'm not sure anyone saw this coming. I myself was predicting another ten win season. But we all know how that turned out. MSU ended up finishing 3-9 ( the universities worst season in over 30 years ) and it wasn't pretty. To go along with that the Spartans had to kick 10+ guys off the team for a number of things. After those guys were gone Mark Dantonio was able to step in like he usually does and rally his guys during the offseason. He brought his players together and taught them how to play for one another again. Once Coach D got the locker room in order he was then able to work on team chemistry and there's nothing scarier than a talented group of guys who want to play for each other rather than the individual.
The Spartans feature a superlative defense that appears to want to stop the run first and foremost. How will they adjust to a team that's going to throw and throw and throw? Or will they not adjust and simply do what they do?
The Michigan State defense vs. the Cougars offense will be one of the biggest match ups for fans to watch during this game. It really does beg the question, will Mark Dantonio and Michigan State adjust for the pass? To be honest I'm not sure, the Spartans have faced some high flying offenses in the past under the Dantonio regime and typically he sticks to his usual game plan. Which is to place his corners on a couple islands with virtually no safety help. He lines his defenders up and says "our guys are better than yours" so to speak. Given that I have no reason to think otherwise, we can expect more of the same.
Who's the one guy on defense poised to do the most damage in this game?
It's our favorite sophomore hailing from Brook Park, Ohio. Joe Bachie!! He finished the year with 94 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and three interceptions. This guy made big play after big play throughout the season. Whether it was coming up with a timely interception against Michigan or recording 13 tackles in a home game against Indiana ( where MSU struggled badly ), he was there.
It's my personal opinion that he was snubbed from the first and second All-Big Ten Defensive teams. I find it very hard to believe that there are six linebackers better than Joe Bachie in the Big Ten. Every one watching should look for him to have a big impact on the outcome of this game defensively.
If there's a weakness the Cougar offense could attack, it would be?
It has to be the Michigan State secondary. I'm not saying that the MSU secondary is weak but it is exposed. If I'm right about Mark Dantonio sticking to his usual man to man on the outside then things could get very interesting, especially with the pass heavy offense the Cougars plan on using.
The MSU offense, on the other hand, has struggled mightily at times. Why is that?
It's a number of things. It goes from the play-calling, some offensive line struggles, running backs / receivers fumbling the ball at very inopportune times, and Brian Lewerke being inaccurate. Sometimes I heavily question Dave Warner's ability to call plays. When fans see run plays on first and second downs that go nowhere and then obvious pass plays on third down we all shake our heads. When the offense is driving and LJ Scott, Madre London, or Gerald Holmes fumbles (something that has occurred far to often this season) everyone moans and groans. Then there are the obvious offensive line struggles where holes don't open up or Lewerke is simply under pressure and being sacked. Put all of that together and MSU has a very inconsistent offense at times.
In what figures to be a low-scoring defensive game, who is the player on offense most likely to make a huge play or two that could break the game open?
I know this goes outside of the question itself but I'm narrowing it down to L.J. Scott, Brian Lewerke, or Felton Davis III. Any of these guys has the offensive ability to lead the Spartans to victory. We've all seen the potential that Scott has as a runner. People know what great chemistry Brian and Davis have developed throughout this season. Hooking up on eight of Lewerke's 17 touchdown passes. Davis is going to see his fair share of targets this game so it wouldn't surprise me at all if we saw him get in the end-zone during crunch time.
These two teams are only separated by a couple of spots in the Top 25, Vegas sees it as basically a pick 'em and SB Nation's Bill Connelly forecasts this game to be a 50-50 coin flip. Is that how you see it?
Yes I do. I think this game could go either way. Even with the high flying offense that Washington State brings with them it'll be a lower scoring battle filled with defense. I'm going with 21-14 MSU. I think the Spartan defense stands tall and Brian Lewerke does just enough to lead Michigan State to victory.
Thanks McLain! You can read my answers to his questions over here.