Quick 2019 Recap: The Spartans jumped out to a 2-0 start, but could not make it through the non-conference schedule unscathed. Week three would not be as kind, as Michigan State lost to Arizona State 10-7 in the type of game we’ve seen many times from the Spartans, with just the bare-minimum amount of offense and the defense doing everything possible to win an extremely low-scoring affair.
They bounced back with wins against Northwestern and Indiana to reach 4-1 before reaching the difficult portion of the schedule. Unfortunately for the Spartans, they failed this test miserably, suffering through blowout losses to Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. This was followed by a 37-34 loss to upstart Illinois (in which Sparty blew a 28-3 lead in classic SPARTY NO fashion) and a 44-10 crushing at the hands of in-state rival Michigan, to put them in a free fall with a five-game losing streak. However, the team was able to find enough momentum to close the regular season with two consecutive victories, besting Rutgers and Maryland as they reached a 6-6 record and bowl eligibility. The Spartans received an invitation to the Pinstripe Bowl, where they took down Wake Forest 27-21, to finish with a 7-6 record.
Offensive Player To Watch: RB Elijah Collins
Michigan State will be breaking in a lot of new talent on offense, but seems to have a star-in-the-making in redshirt sophomore Elijah Collins. The Detroit native powered the running game and provided much-needed consistency for the Spartans in 2019. He now seems in store for bigger things after just narrowly missing the 1,000 yard rushing mark as a freshman. Collins finished the season with a 96-yard effort against Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl, and had his best game of the season against Illinois when he kept the Spartans in the game with a 170-yard, two touchdown performance.
Defensive Player To Watch: LB Antjuan Simmons
Simmons went from role player to a one-man wrecking crew during his junior season in 2019. Lining up at both inside and outside linebacker, Simmons led the team in tackles while also becoming the key playmaker for the defense. He finished with 15 tackles for losses, 3.5 sacks, a fumble recovery, and forced two fumbles in his first season as a starter. He will look to become the leader of the defense as a senior while continuing to make the momentum-shifting plays to keep the Spartans in ballgames this fall.
Major Changes for 2020: More than a month after Michigan State wrapped up its season in the Pinstripe Bowl, Mark Dantonio announced his retirement. Dantonio had been leading the Spartans since 2007, and helped the program take a giant step forward, winning or sharing part of four Big Ten titles and making a playoff appearance following the 2013 season. The Spartans brought in Mel Tucker from Colorado, where he went 5-7 in his sole season in Boulder. Prior to that, Tucker spent three seasons in Georgia as the defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.
Tucker’s most important addition to the staff is offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, who held the same position under Tucker at Colorado. Johnson’s role will be absolutely vital, as the Spartans are in desperate need of finding a consistent offensive identity to avoid its regular string of poor performances and hoping the defense can limit the opponent to single digits.
Penn State Wins If: The Nittany Lions would benefit greatly from a couple of quick scoring strikes and then forcing an inexperienced quarterback and set of wide receivers try to play catch up. Michigan State is looking at a major rebuild (at least, on paper), so Penn State should be fine as long as they play to their potential and limit needless mistakes. This game should be much more similar to the Nittany Lions’ 28-7 victory a season ago, rather than the debacles in 2017 and 2018 when the offense couldn’t find its rhythm and let the Spartans eek out a win with a late score.
Michigan State Wins If: It looks like the Spartans are heading for a rough season. Michigan State is losing much of its talent on offense from an already unproductive unit. They must also replace some key players on a typically stout defense.
With that being said, the Spartans will have time to get their new-look offense in order by the time they head to Happy Valley. They will need to be a much-improved team by November if they want to have any realistic shot of coming into Beaver Stadium and beating Penn State.