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Know Your Foe: Michigan State Spartans

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The Mark Dantonio era is long gone.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The final regular season, and potentially last, Know Your Foe of the 2020 season is upon as we look at the Michigan State Spartans. That of course means, the greatest trophy in the history of sports is on the line.

That’s right.... it’s the (cue dramatic music, lights lower) THE LAND GRANT TROPHY (spotlight shines onto The Land Grant Trophy - lasers everywhere). Epicness ensues.

But now onto getting to know the 2020 Michigan State Spartans who are not led by Mark Dantonio for the first time since 2007.

Michigan State University

Location: East Lansing, MI

Enrollment: 48,909

Michigan State Football Fast Facts:

Home Stadium: Spartan Stadium (75,000)

Head Coach: Mel Tucker (1st season, 2-3)

Conference: Big Ten

Conference Titles: 9

Overall Bowl Record: 13-16

Series History

Penn State and Michigan State have played 34 times in a series that has been extremely close and well fought. How can you blame them...just look at that trophy! In the prior 34 meetings, Michigan State holds a slight advantage with 17 wins to Penn State’s 16 wins, there is one tie in there, stemming from 1948. This prior decade, MSU had the foot up on Penn State winning five of the seven matchups between the two programs. That being said, the last four games have been evenly split though one could argue, Penn State should have won all four meetings. That, however, is neither here nor there.

What they did last season (7-6 ; 4-5)

In what would be Mark Dantonio’s last season as head coach of the Spartans, Michigan State collected a 7-6 record including 4-5 in conference play. Their best win of the season last year came against the Indiana Hoosiers at the end of September, other than that, they defeated Tulsa, Western Michigan, Northwestern, Rutgers, Maryland, and Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl. In terms of losses, they lost to four ranked teams out of the Big Ten and then Illinois as well as Arizona State. After starting the season in the top-25, the Spartans dropped out of the rankings entering the second week of October and never returned.

Recruiting and offseason:

With Mark Dantonio’s resignation at the end of the season, the Spartans had to find themselves a new program leader. After a lengthy search, they found their next man in Colorado head coach and former Georgia assistant, Mel Tucker. Tucker left Colorado for Michigan State after just one season in which he collected a 5-7 record with the Buffaloes. He kept on three coaches from Dantonio’s staff in Ron Burton, their defensive line coach, Harlon Barnett their defensive backs coach, and Mike Tressel as their linebackers coach.

The Spartans 2020 recruiting class finished 44th nationally and 10th in the Big Ten per 247Sports’s class rankings. Their class was led by three-star wide receiver Ricky White who has already shown this season that he is going to be a player at the college level. Their class included one Pennsylvania prospect in Southern Columbia product Cal Haladay, who has seen early playing time as well for the Spartans.

What they did last week: 52-12 loss to Ohio State

The Spartans last week had the misfortune of going up against the Ohio State Buckeyes, who were looking to solidify their spot in the College Football Playoffs even if they don’t play in the Big Ten Championship (narrator voice: They will.”). The Buckeyes tried their hardest in doing that and left no doubt in this game as Michigan State was dominated from start to finish. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi left the game with an injury and it’s unclear if he’ll be ready for Saturday, though it certainly seems unlikely.

Offense:

Offensively, the Spartans are one of the worst teams in the nation, the Spartans are averaging just 17 points per game which ranks 120 out of 127 teams nationally. Their offense when successful is mostly due to their passing attack, throwing for 224.5 yards per game. That being said, their only averaging a 54.2% completion percentage and are averaging more interceptions than touchdowns per game. With Rocky Lombardi likely out, they’ll look towards sophomore Payton Throne. Thorne this season is 26-for-46 for 257-yards and no touchdowns but two interceptions. Prior to his injury, Lombardi completed 53.5% of his passes for 1,090-yards, eight touchdowns, and nine interceptions. The Spartans top receiving threats are juniors Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor as well as freshman Ricky White. Reed this season is leading the team with 27 receptions for 331-yards and three touchdowns, while Nailor is posting a 20-451-2 stat line. Ricky White we alluded to above has just 10 receptions this season but is averaging 223-yards and has one touchdown. He had a huge game against Michigan in the Spartans win, bringing in eight receptions for 196-yards and a touchdown.

The Spartans rushing attack is miserable to say the least, they’re averaging just 95.2 yards per game on 34.7 carries per game, an average of 2.7 yards per carry. Redshirt junior Connor Heyward is leading the team in carries and rushing yards with 60 attempts for 190-yards. Freshman Jordan Simmons has 42 carries and is averaging 147-yards while redshirt sophomore Elijah Collins has 93 yards on 40 carries. All in all, the Spartans have just two rushing touchdowns this season, one from quarterback Payton Thorne and one from wide receiver Tyler Hunt.

Defense:

Defensively, the Spartans are not much better than they are offensively. They’re allowing 34.5 points per game, ranking 99 out of 127 teams. They’ve allowed big plays both through the air and on the ground but the their rush defense certainly has been worse. Opposing offenses are averaging 163.7 yards per game on the ground this season compared to 231.7 through the air which compared to the rest of the nation is considerable above average, the rush defense not so much. Overall, their defense is allowing nearly 400 yards per game this season. While they have certainly have gotten hurt on the ground, the defense I would say is more so a victim of a ton of short field situations due to the offense rather than just poor play throughout. Michigan State since Dantonio began in 2007 has usually had quality to strong defenses and with most of that talent still there and a defensive minded head coach in Mel Tucker, a huge drop off wouldn’t have been expected. After all, last year, the Spartans had a top-40 scoring defense.

Michigan State’s best player defensively is without a doubt is senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons who has 65 tackles on the season including 8.5 tackles for a loss and one sack. The Spartans defense as a whole has been able to get in the backfield a quality amount over the course of their five games with 12 players recording at least one tackle for a loss and nine with two or more. They’ve also been able to get to the quarterback a decent amount so far with 12 sacks, about an average of 2.4 sacks per game.

One last name to know for the Spartans is defensive back Shakur Brown who has five interceptions this season and four pass deflections. Brown is the only Spartan with an interception this season though as a team they have 21 total pass deflections.

With Penn State coming off back to back games where they’ve been able to run the ball effectively throughout, the Nittany Lions are set up to have another big game on the ground against the Spartans.

Special Teams:

Jayden Reed is the Spartans primary kick returner with 15 returns for 509-yards, in terms of punt returns, the Spartans have returned three punts this year for a total of 22-yards. Their starting kicker is Matt Coghlin who is 10-for-10 in extra point attempts and 8-for-11 in field goal attempts. At punter, they’ll most likely have Bryce Baringer who is averaging 42.5 yards per punt this season over the course of 31 punts.