Saying that 2016 has been a rough season for the Spartans is quite the understatement. After an incredible 2015 campaign that ended with a trip to the College Football Playoff in Dallas, we all expected more from Mark Dantonio’s squad this year, even with so much talent departing. The reloading project hasn’t gone as well as expected, but recent strong efforts against Ohio State and Rutgers have many fans convinced that this is not the same Michigan State team that lost to both Maryland and Illinois earlier in the year.
Can the Spartans end their 2016 with a flourish by upsetting the Nittany Lions and spoiling their chance at a division title? Or will Penn State pull through with its eighth straight Big Ten win? For answers to those questions and more information on the Spartans, we asked Austin Smith of Michigan State blog The Only Colors and Andrew Kraszewski of Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire to a few questions.
Black Shoe Diaries: Michigan State has been one of the most disappointing teams this season with just one conference win following its Big Ten championship campaign of 2015. At what point did it become apparent that this year wasn’t going to be at all like last year?
The Only Colors: I'm not sure anyone thought MSU was going back to the CFP but 10 wins were not out of the question by any means, especially after what everyone thought was a landmark win in South Bend in week two. Well, we all know how that worked out.
The cracks started to show in the very first game against Furman but a lot of their struggles were chalked up to having so many new faces on the field. Then ND happened, then they were blown out by a very good Wisconsin team at home. Wisconsin was humbling but given the emotional high the week before and the caliber of the Badger defense, it wasn't the end of the world. That came the next week at Indiana which, in my opinion, was the game that unraveled the whole ball of yarn.
MSU was up 14-0 late in the third quarter with a chance to ice the game against an out-of-sync Hoosier team. Instead they gave up three touchdown drives and had to score a desperation touchdown with 11 seconds left to force an overtime which they promptly blew. Instead of moving to 3-1 and using a close road win as a springboard, they slipped to 2-2 and lost their next five games. Had they won, I think they end up beating the Marylands, Illinoises and Northwesterns of the world; instead the season has been a total disaster.
Off Tackle Empire: For me it was the BYU game. Wisconsin was clearly a better team, Indiana was close enough that you could call it a fluke, but being outclassed for the second time in three weeks by an unremarkable opponent was sobering.
BSD: The good news is that the Spartans have played much better lately. Here are their last four results: surprisingly close loss to Michigan, loss to Illinois, surprisingly easy win over Rutgers, surprisingly close loss to Ohio State. Is this team really improving? If so, what’s up with that loss to Illinois?
TOC: To answer the first question, yes, this team is definitely improving, most notably on the lines. Both Michigan and Ohio State said after their games that MSU controlled the lines of scrimmage which is a stark contrast to every game up until UM. Freshmen and sophomores have taken most of the playing time from a disappointing group of upperclassmen and their growth has been the key to MSU playing better.
As for the Illinois loss, it was pretty standard 2016 MSU. They dominated the first half but were unable to cash in on multiple scoring opportunities and wore down defensively in the second half, giving up 24 points. Some of it can be attributed to the emotion of losing a close game (and their best quarterback, redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke) to Michigan the week before, but really it was just the culmination of all the issues they had faced throughout the season.
OTE: I don't know that they really have played better, though. Rutgers is so turbobad as to be irrelevant for evaluation purposes. Yes, MSU played its best games of the year against Michigan and OSU, but that's par for the course under Dantonio. The Illinois game you mention in there is still representative of what this team is: a whole which is much less than the sum of its parts for reasons that are hard to ascertain from the outside.
BSD: One of the reasons Michigan State has struggled this year is the inconsistent play of quarterback Tyler O’Connor. He has a solid 8.1 yards per attempt average this year, but he’s also thrown nine interceptions and has had trouble holding onto the starting job. Can you tell us why Mark Dantonio seems to have so little faith in the senior?
TOC: I don't think it's fair to say Dantonio has had a lack of faith in O'Connor. He was given every chance to take this team and make it his own but never could. I actually think Dantonio gave a little too much time. He struggled against Furman, lost to Wisconsin, Indiana, and BYU before coach thought to go in a different direction. Backup quarterback Damion Terry didn't get any real time until BYU and Lewerke didn't get significant snaps until week six against Northwestern. The chances were there, he just wasn't good enough to capitalize on them.
The offensive line didn't do him many favors, though. He struggles the most in obvious passing downs and for a team that didn't run the ball well until the last four weeks, that was pretty often. Those yardage numbers are a reflection of hitting a lot of really deep passes, but that's about all he's proven adept at doing.
The worst part of this season, for me, was the loss of Lewerke to a broken leg. The redshirt freshman had his struggles, but looked like a quarterback you can build a program around. That's not to say you still can't, but missing the last four games and possibly some of spring cost him a lot of valuable snaps. Instead, those snaps will go to O'Connor which is a cruel way to end a cruel season.
OTE: So little faith? He gave him every opportunity and it just wasn't and isn't working, man. If redshirt frosh Brian Lewerke's leg were still intact, he'd still have the job. Dantonio learned his lesson from 2012, when he stuck with an ineffective upperclassman starter for the entire season and the record ended up not matching the quality of the team. The thing is, this year the rest of the team is weak enough that it's tough to pin much of the mess on O'Connor. Fans won't remember him fondly, and that's too bad for a guy who diligently waited his turn, but we'll always have the Horseshoe '15, Tyler.
BSD: LJ Scott is finishing the year strong with at least 120 rushing yards and a touchdown in four of his last five games. What’s caused the sophomore tailback to play so well late in the season?
TOC: There are two main culprits. The first is the offensive line, which has improved pretty drastically after finally finding a semi-stable playing group. The second is Offensive Coordinator Dave Warner.
MSU has a pretty impressive group of tailbacks. Backups Gerald Holmes and Madre London could both play at a lot of schools and should Scott go down would do an admirable job in his stead. Because of that glut, Warner has played the "hot hand" a lot the last two years, which is okay when you have a quarterback who can bail you out like Connor Cook and a road-grating line with guys like Jack Conklin, Jack Allen and Donovan Clark. But when your offense struggles time and time again, you have to get the ball to your best player, which is Scott.
Almost inexplicably, Scott had a four-week stretch where his carries went 14-11-3-3. That's not even close to enough. Since then he's gone 20-22-14-20-19. Guess which game was 14? Yup, Illinois. Shocking right? 2017 should be a big year for LJ The offensive line doesn't lose anyone of importance, and should improve even more. The quarterbacking can almost literally not get any worse and it's very possible Warner will not be around to limit his touches. Even if he is, hopefully he's learned to stop messing around.
OTE: There's finally some signs of cohesion from a reconstituted offensive line. In particular, a pair of redshirt freshmen at LT and LG, Cole Chewins and Tyler Higby, at least aren't always blowing assignments. The OL may actually be the single biggest disappointment over the course of the year. They did lose three NFL-caliber guys from last year, but there's still a large group of upperclassmen who just haven't looked the part in bigger roles. As for Scott, he's always been the most talented back on the team, but the playcalling hasn't always allowed him to showcase his skills. Getting him the ball on different kinds of plays rather than bashing him with power behind an ineffective line has probably helped a lot.
BSD: We knew the Michigan State offense was going to take a step back without former quarterback Connor Cook, but the drop in defensive performance has come as more of a shock. Can you explain what’s happened to the Spartan defense as well as what’s caused it to improve over the past two weeks?
TOC: It all starts with the defensive line. MSU lost eight defensive linemen from last year's team including Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath, all of whom are in the NFL. The crippling blows were the transfers of Craig Evans, Montez Sweat and Cassius Peat, two sophomores and a freshman who would have been big time contributors, if not starters, on this team. No matter who you are that is a ton of talent to replace.
The Spartans did land one of the best DL classes in the nation last year and all but one of the recruits, Naquan Jones, have played extensively down the stretch. Mike Panasiuk, Josh King, and Auston Robertson are all big-time contributors now and their improvement, along with young guys like Robert Bowers and Raequan Williams, have given the boost that you've seen recently. Everything flows back from there.
MSU is also very young in the secondary, especially at corner. True freshmen Justin Layne and Donnie Corley, along with a handful of other underclassmen, have been getting a ton of burn down the stretch and have taken noticeable steps forward. Going forward, there is a lot to be excited about.
OTE: Massive turnover on the line is the beginning and end of the defense's inconsistency. Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas, and Joel Heath were expected to leave after last year. Craig Evans, Damon Knox, Montez Sweat, and Enoch Smith weren't. I referenced this in the offseason, but this line was always going to be Malik McDowell And Others, and the Others haven't really showed up in either holding ground against the run or rushing the passer. As with the OL, this program, despite improved recruiting, still relies on older players to develop into their best selves, and the few veterans on this line just aren't that good outside of McDowell, who's been hurt for what feels like the whole season.
BSD: The Spartans have lost a lot of close games this season and are just one year removed from winning 12 games. Can we expect them to bounce back and become conference title contenders once again in 2017?
TOC: As bad as this season has been, I'm optimistic about 2017, mostly because this isn't a 3-8 roster. There is a lot of talent and most of it is young. The last two recruiting classes have been Dantonio's best and those are the kids playing a lot of minutes during the second half of this season.
It’s not like they could get a whole lot worse, but they should be significantly improved on both sides of the ball. Quarterback, wide receiver, and offensive line should all take noticeable steps forward as should the defensive line (even with the loss of Malik McDowell) and secondary. They lose a lot of players, but most of them are upperclassmen who don't do much contributing as is.
Like I mentioned above, I think 2017 is going to be LJ Scott's star turn. There is no reason he shouldn't touch the ball 22 to 25 times a game and will only be helped by a legitimate passing threat under center. As of now, I think eight to nine wins is a fair expectation of next year's team.
OTE: I think OSU is going to be the prohibitive favorite next year such that it won't really matter what improvements anyone else makes, but they should be much better, yes. This isn't actually that young of a team, but a lot of ineffective seniors are moving on and Dantonio played a ton of freshmen this year. Normal maturing curves suggest they'll be markedly better... though there are some coaching issues that could use addressing and probably won't get it. I'll leave it at that.
BSD: The Spartans are 12-point underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the game going for Michigan State?
TOC: I think this is a game MSU can win. They've come back to life recently behind a strong running game and improved defense and this is MSU's de facto Bowl Game. LJ Scott is a monster and Penn State has been erratic at times. That being said, I don't think they will win. Penn State simply has too much to play for. Even if (gulp) Michigan beats Ohio State and PSU's chances at the Big Ten Championship and Playoff go out the window, a Rose Bowl is very much in play, which is no small prize.
I think this will be a close game but I think Penn State pulls it outs 24-17.
OTE: Seven questions? I'm clocking this as time and a half. Anyway...I'm not expecting a great performance. Given how disappointing this year has been and the effort the team expended last week only to come up short, plus having nothing to play for other than a monstrous bowling trophy, plus the exact opposite being the case for the Nittany Lions, I think PSU probably covers comfortably.
Thanks again to Austin and Andrew for taking the time to answer our questions. Remember to keep reading The Only Colors and Off Tackle Empire to stay up to date on the Spartans through basketball season and beyond.