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Know Your Foe Week 10: No.24 Michigan State Spartans

An improved Michigan State team will battle Penn State for the Land Grant Trophy!

NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State University

Location: East Lansing, Michigan
Enrollment: 50,543 (39,143 undergraduates)
Home Stadium: Spartan Stadium
Head Coach: Mark Dantonio, 11th season, 92-42 (.687)
Conference: Big Ten (East Division)

Series History

First Game: November 13, 1914 (Michigan State won, 6-3)
Last Game: November 26, 2016 (Penn State won, 45-12)
Overall: Tied at 15 wins each and one tie
Current Win Streak: Penn State, 1

Last Season (3-9 overall, 1-8 Big Ten Conference)

It was a brutal year for the Spartans in 2016, going 3-9 in the regular season (1-8 Big Ten), with their first losing season under Dantonio and a year where Michigan State was not bowl eligible. The Spartans started the year off strong, ranked No. 12, defeating Furman and No. 18 Notre Dame. Then Michigan State dropped their next seven games in a row to No. 11 Wisconsin, Indiana, BYU, Northwestern, Maryland, No. 2 Michigan and Illinois. Ouch. The Spartans defeated Rutgers 49-0, their most decisive win of the season, only to lose to then No. 2 Ohio State and No. 8 Penn State in the following two games.

Last Week

The 6-2 (4-1 Big Ten) Spartans are having a much better year but unfortunately, this Saturday they snapped a four-game winning streak, losing in a three-overtime heartbreaker to the Northwestern Wildcats, 39-31.

Michigan State scored first in the first with a touchdown pass from quarterback Brian Lewerke to Cody White, then hit a field goal in the second quarter for a 10-0 lead. Northwestern responded by scoring 10 unanswered points in the second quarter to tie the game 10-10 at the half. In the fourth quarter, both teams scored touchdowns, leading to the 17-17 tie going into the first overtime, then made it 24-24 going into the second overtime, then 31-31 going into the third overtime.

In the final overtime, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Flynn Nagel. But on the next Spartan possession, Wildcat Nate Hall intercepted Lewerke in the end zone sealing the Northwestern win.

Lewerke threw for a school record 445 yards and four touchdowns and Cody White had 165 yards receiving (the most by a Spartan freshman in a single game in school history) and two touchdowns. Michigan State’s defense held Northwestern to just 64 yards rushing. Joe Bachie led the Spartans in tackles for the sixth time this season with eight stops.

Recruiting and Offseason

The Michigan State 2017 class is ranked as the nation’s 36th recruiting class (sixth in the Big Ten), as compared to Penn State’s 2017 class ranked at 16th in the nation and third in the Big10.

This year, the Spartans lost graduating quarterback Tyler O’Connor and saw defensive lineman Malik McDowell and safety Montae Nicholson drafted in the 2017 NFL draft. Wide receiver R.J. Shelton later signed with the Vikings and safety Demetrious Cox signed with the Panthers.

In April, Michigan State dismissed a total of four players due to sexual assault investigations. Wide receiver Donnie Corley, defensive end Josh King, and wide receiver Demetric Vance were charged with criminal sexual conduct, and in a separate incident, defensive end Auston Robertson, was charged with sexual misconduct. Linebacker Jon Reschke also left the program, deciding to transfer.


Michigan State’s offense struggled last year, continues to struggle this year but has seen a few improvements, statistically speaking . They are 71st in total offense in 2017 (75th last year), 64th in rush offense (65th last year), 67th in passing offense (74th last year).

However, they’ve gone from 3-9 to being 6-2 overall, and have seen quarterback Brian Lewerke steadily improve.

As a freshman in four games in 2016, Lewerke was 31 of 57 (54.5%). In 2017, Lewerke is 159 for 259 (61.4%) for 1,807 yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. Lewerke ranks third in the Big Ten in points responsible for per game (behind Trace McSorley). He set several school records against Northwestern last week, including a school record 445 yards and four touchdowns. Lewerke also has 75 rush attempts for 343 yards and 3 rushing touchdowns.

The Spartan offensive line is young, made up of sophomores, with the exception of center and captain, senior Brian Allen and junior right guard David Beedle (uncertain for this week with an injury). The unit allowed 27 sacks, averaging 2.3 sacks per game last year, tied for the fifth-highest rate per game in the Big Ten. This year they’ve improved that stat, allowing 10 sacks (1.25 per game) of quarterback Lewerke.

Michigan State has a number of talented running backs, with LJ Scott leading the Spartans with 113 attempts for 511 yards and four touchdowns (and 11 receptions for 82 yards and one touchdown). Gerald Holmes and Madre London also split time rushing, but Holmes may not see play this week after an ankle injury earlier in the season.

Top targets in the air include wide receiver Felton Davis who is second in the team in scoring with 42 points – and the top receiver with 33 receptions for 405 yards and seven touchdowns. Darrell Stewart has 35 receptions for 362 yards and one touchdown. Cody White and Hunter Rison also see time at receiver.


Michigan State’s defense had a rough 2016. First, the losing season, then losing key defensive players including linebacker Jon Reschke, who transferred, and defensive ends Auston Robertson and Josh King, dismissed for sexual assault cases. Even so, they’ve improved their defense over last year, and fast.

Last year, the Spartans were 32nd in total defense, 51st in rush defense, 14th in first down defense, and 84th in pass efficiency defense. This year, improvements include 8th in total defense (3rd in Big Ten), 4th in rush defense with 89.8 yards allowed (top in the Big Ten), 14th in first down defense, and 17th in team passing efficiency defense.

Senior defensive end Demetrious Cooper returns as the veteran along with (all sophomores) defensive end Kenny Willekes, defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk and nose tackle Raequan Williams. Willekes has 43 tackles total for the year (fourth for the Spartans) along with three sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and one fumble recovery.

Michigan State boasts some talented linebackers, especially in sophomore Joe Bachie, who leads the Spartans in defense with 71 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, one interception, one fumble recovery and two fumbles forced. Bachie is fourth in the Big Ten averaging 8.9 tackles per game.

Other starting linebackers include junior Andrew Dowell and senior Chris Frey. Andrew Dowell has 29 tackles this year and two interceptions for 35 yards. Frey led the linebacker unit last year with 96 tackles and so far has 34 this year along with four tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.

The Spartans do have depth at safety with juniors Khari Willis and starter David Dowell (yep, that's Andrew Dowell's twin brother). Willis is third for Michigan State in tackles with 49 while David Dowell is second on the team with tackles with 55.

The cornerback position is young, with sophomore Justin Layne returning after starting five games in 2016, making him the veteran. Freshman Josiah Scott is also starting as cornerback with backups filling in - sophomore Josh Butler and junior Tyson Smith (who thankfully battled back from a stroke last season).

Special Teams

The Spartans’ redshirt freshman kicker Matt Coghlin, the leading scorer for the Spartans with 44 points, is 23 of 23 for extra points but he’s 7 of 11 (63.6%) for field goals this season. Punter Jake Hartbarger has 45 punts for 1,905 yards and an average punt of 42.3, and had a career-best 62-yard punt against Indiana, pinning them at their own 1-yard line.

Connor Heyward and Darrell Stewart have handled most kick return duties and have been the most successful, with Heyward catching six returns for 171 yards and Stewart with six returns for 152 yards.


Check out more on Michigan State Spartans football at their SB Nation blog, The Only Colors.