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Nebraska Football

We Thought We'd Find Out Who Michigan State Really Was, Then Came Injuries

November 15, 2018
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This was originally published on July 18. Football hadn’t started yet so the injuries hadn’t started yet. We thought we were going to find out whether Michigan State could get off the pendulum it has been riding the last three years. There was more returning production than any other team in the country. Things looked to be set up nicely.

Then injuries happened.

Nine of the team’s 11 starters have missed time with an injury. Starting running back LJ Scott played four games and was lost for the season due to an ankle injury. Star wideout Felton Davis III only made it six games before an Achilles cost him the season. Quarterback Brian Lewerke suffered a shoulder injury in Game 6 against Penn State and hasn’t looked the same since.

Lewerke has entered into this back-and-forth dance with backup redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi (All-Name First Team lock) since and the team has gone 2-2. Lewerke looks hurt but keeps playing. Lombardi is healthy but inexperienced. 

Given that lack of clean health and a generally poor season from Lewerke even before the injury, Michigan State’s offense has yet to ignite this season. The Spartans have scored 30 points once in Big Ten play (35 against a bad Indiana team on Sept. 22) and haven’t topped 24 since. 

Head coach Mark Dantonio’s group is bad when throwing the ball (81st in passing S&P+; 114th in completion rate), worse running the ball (99th in rushing S&P+; 107th in stuff rate; 120th in opportunity rate) and struggles to produce big plays (97th in big play rate, plays that gain 20 yards).

There are currently 18 qualified Big Ten runners averaging at least 5 yards a carry, Michigan State doesn't have one. The only guy who hasn't fumbled the ball this season is Scott, who can't play. Davis still leads the team in catches and receiving yards and he's missed the last four games.

Fortunately for Sparty, the defense has been strong enough to keep things afloat, because Michigan State has one of the best units in the country on the other side of the ball. MSU is fourth in defensive S&P+ and 103rd in offensive S&P+. (That ranking is explained here for anyone that might not know what it is.)

The entire M.O. is punishing you up front and taking the run game out of the equation, then attacking on passing downs and making you pay for mistakes. Sparty is second nationally in yards per carry allowed (2.55) and have more run stuffs (plays made at or behind the line) than any team in the country. They limit the big plays, keep the third-down percentage low for opposing offenses and cause a good deal of havoc.

The recipe has worked for six wins this year and failed in four losses. Against top-50 offenses by S&P+, Michigan State has three of its four losses. Against top-60 defenses, it also has three of those four losses. 

Nebraska fits both billings.

Read on for more of what MSU came into the season with.


MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

2017 Record: 10-3 | Returning offensive starters: 10 | Returning defensive starters: 9

Who is Michigan State? Do we know the answer to that question? In 2015, the Spartans went to the College Football Playoff. They were then promptly curb-stomped by Alabama. In 2016, they began their season with a huge win over Notre Dame on the road. They then lost nine of their final 10 games. In 2015, they closed nonconference play with a thumping at home at the hands of a clearly-motivated Notre Dame team. They then closed that season 8-2 with wins over Michigan on the road, Penn State at home and Washington in the Holiday Bowl.

First, it was 12 wins that should have been 10 wins, then it was three wins that should have been five wins, then last year it was 10 wins that should have been eight wins. Michigan State has been riding one heck of a roller coaster lately, and that’s not even bringing into account the off-field issues the program won’t deal with. (And anyone that would suggest ongoing off-field problems don’t eventually filter into on-field matters is kidding themselves.)

The Spartans enter 2018 10th in ESPN’s FPI with a 10-3 projection, more returning production than anyone else in the country and a schedule that gives them Michigan and Ohio State at home. So why am I not sold?

In 10 wins, Michigan State averaged 4 yards a run and close to two touchdowns a game. In three losses, they averaged 3 yards a carry and failed to find the end zone a single time. Beating Michigan State in 2018 definitely won’t be as simple as saying “OK, we’re going to key on the run,” but those that did in 2017 found success. Michigan State was stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage on 21.7 percent of carries, which ranked 103rd in the country.

The offensive line did its job in pass-protection no problem (19th in adjusted sack rate) but run blocking was a different kind of adventure. The offense ranked 108th in opportunity rate at 34.4 percent. Overall, Sparty was 105th in rushing yards per play (4.41), 102nd in explosive-play percentage (13.08) and 103rd in yards per point (15.61).

Last year’s leading rusher, L.J. Scott, is back for his senior year but last season saw a regression of sorts. Opportunity improved, efficiency went down. In 2016, Scott averaged 5.4 yards a carry with six scores and two fumbles. In 2017, Scott averaged 4.5 yards a carry with eight scores and five fumbles. Just like with the seesaw win-loss record, which season is the blip? The Spartan backups have been replaced with mostly green runners so it’s a safe bet to say Scott’s opportunity will continue to rise. 

This is an offense that is designed to run first and foremost and pass when necessary, and it straight up can’t run the ball. That's not good, sources say. Metrics that try to account for offensive line contributions to the running game say the Spartans weren’t any good and metrics that track efficiency say the same. Yet, last season they ran on standard downs 65.3 percent of the time (31st-highest mark in the country) and then turned to quarterback Brian Lewerke on passing downs and said, “Do something please.”

Thankfully, Lewerke was good, especially on third downs, and his improvement coupled with offensive continuity is a big reason others are so high on Michigan State heading into the year. With Lewerke at the helm, the offense ranked 18th in the country in third-down conversions despite facing more than any team in the Big Ten not named Indiana (12th-most nationally). They converted on 45.7 percent of them. Lewerke completed 53 percent of his passes on third down and the offense logged the 12th-best S&P+ rating in the country on such plays.

Relying so heavily on your quarterback making plays when the defense knows he has to make plays is a risky proposition. Plus Michigan State was lucky in the turnover margin last season. Banking on the same thing happening again is an even riskier proposition, but it’s one head coach Mark Dantonio is willing to make because of his defense.

The other side of the ball is the real reason Michigan State is a preseason Big Ten darling. That side was really, really good a year ago. 

Teams couldn’t move the ball efficiently against the Spartans and couldn’t manufacture big plays at all. After dropping from 12th to 41st in defensive S&P+ from 2015 to 2016, the Spartans jumped up to 4th last season (best since 2013) with an entirely new set of contributors. 

Thirteen guys averaged at least a tackle a game last season; 11 of them return for 2018 including each of the top five. There’s a budding star on the defensive line in former walk-on Kenny Willekes, who went for 14.5 tackles for loss including seven sacks a season ago. There will be two seniors and a junior making up the bulk of the rotation at safety and a bunch of athletes at corner. Every key piece of last season’s third-best explosion-preventing pass defense returns.

The Spartans should be favored in 10 of their 12 games this season, according to S&P+, and in the games they’re not, they’re less than a one-score underdog. Statistically speaking, the team overachieved last year but the thing with that is it just moves the bar up a rung. They were good when they weren't supposed to be quite as good and that means they have to be even better now. There aren’t really any excuses for not reaching that 10-win threshold again this year given everything coming back. They did it last year with less experience.

Which leads us back to our question: Who is Michigan State? We should find out the answer this season.

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