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Interviews with Football Frenemies: Michigan State Spartans Edition

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Penn State will have to take the Land-Grant Trophy back in order to keep its Playoff hopes alive.

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

Last year, both of Penn State’s losses came in consecutive games to Ohio State and Michigan State. In 2018, the NIttany Lions once again saw their perfect season shattered in a heartbreaking loss to the Buckeyes, but the circumstances are a little different. For one, they’ll play Michigan State at home this time and after a bye week to boot. For another, this Spartan squad doesn’t look quite as imposing as the one that upset Penn State in 2017.

Brian Lewerke and Felton Davis III may have returned, but Michigan State is having trouble getting the ball in the end zone, scoring fewer than 20 points each in losses to Arizona State and Northwestern. The defense has been stout against the run, but also surprisingly generous against opposing passing attacks.

After the surprising home loss to Northwestern, the Spartans can still get back in the Big Ten East title race, but they’ve got to defeat Penn State for the second straight year. For more on the crucial showdown, we talked to McLain Moberg of SB Nation’s Michigan State blog, The Only Colors. Thanks to McLain for gracing us with his insight.

Black Shoe Diaries: Brian Lewerke has a higher completion percentage and more yards per attempts than last season, but he’s already thrown six interceptions with only six touchdown passes to match. What’s caused the passing offense to be less productive from a scoring perspective?

The Only Colors: Michigan State has had to use multiple different looks on their offensive line. Last Saturday against Northwestern, MSU played two freshmen. Not only have young and inexperienced players been on the offensive line, but they’ve lacked consistency because of injuries to guys like Cole Chewins, David Beedle, and Kevin Jarvis. The only player they haven’t had to replace this season is Jordan Reid. Their struggles have been a big reason why the Spartans haven’t ran the ball well and why Lewerke hasn’t looked like himself at times. He’s under a lot of pressure and I’d argue a couple of those interceptions weren’t his fault. Brian is known for his legs but if he’s given more time in the pocket, he’ll move around less, work through his progressions, and make the right throws.

BSD: Throwing the ball is always easier with a productive running game, but the Spartans have not had that. With LJ Scott nursing an ankle injury, both La’Darius Jefferson and Connor Heyward have averaged less than four yards per carry. Will Scott return to action this week, and if so, how much does he help the ground game?

TOC: The old notion is, without an offensive line, it doesn’t matter who’s running the ball. I think Scott is a more talented running back than Heyward and Jefferson. At times he’s shown the ability to be one of the best backs in the Big Ten. This year, he’s been hampered with injuries and hasn’t played in three weeks. The truth is I have no idea if he’ll be back for Penn State; the only time Mark Dantonio will talk about injuries is if a player is going to be out long term.

If he comes back, it’s good news for MSU. He’s their best running back and deserves to be on the field, but does he significantly improve the run game? In my opinion, no and it’s no fault of his own.

BSD: Felton Davis III was a monster last season against Penn State with 12 catches for 181 yards and a score. Although he’s gained at least 60 yards in each game this season, he hasn’t had such a dominant performance yet. Was Saturday’s two-touchdown game against Northwestern a sign that he’s breaking out?

TOC: Davis has the best hands in the Big Ten and I don’t feel bad about that statement. I think he has the ability to break out whenever he wants. He was clearly frustrated after the loss to the Wildcats — feeling as though he should have been out there more in the fourth quarter (he was taken off the field in a couple third-down situations). I expect him to have a season high in targets this weekend. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to make plays.

BSD: Michigan State ranked fourth in defensive S&P+ in 2017, but this year it ranks 24th after allowing a big passing game by Clayton Thorson. What been the biggest difference for a unit that had a lot of talent returning this year?

TOC: The Spartans are still number one in the nation for their ability to stop the run, but they have been horrible against the pass. Not having corners Josiah Scott and Tyson Smith has definitely hurt the MSU secondary. Thorson had a big game last weekend and made some incredible throws. If Michigan State can find a way to hinder opponents’ pass attempts and get off the field on third down, then in theory those throws right on the money won’t hurt them as much.

BSD: Like you said, the Spartans haven’t had any trouble with stopping the run. Do Joe Bachie and company have what it takes to slow down not only Miles Sanders, but also Trace McSorley, who just had a huge rushing game against Ohio State?

TOC: I think you used the right language by saying “slow down.” MSU won’t completely be able to stop McSorley and Sanders from running the ball, but what they can do is stop it just enough to force Penn State to throw the ball in less than ideal situations. Assuming the Spartan pass defense has cleaned up some of their mistakes, they should be fine. But let me be clear, Michigan State will have to force turnovers, either through the air or on the ground, if they want to keep this one from getting out of hand before the fourth quarter.

BSD: Mark Dantonio did a great job returning his team to a high level after 2016’s disappointing 3-9 campaign, but this season the Spartans already have suffered two losses that fans might not have expected. Is there a feeling among the fan base that he can get this program back to the top of the Big Ten, or has the rise of the other Big Ten East powers made that too tough?

TOC: Mark Dantonio and the Spartans are fine. This season hasn’t gone the way MSU fans expected it to go. They were ranked pretty high during the preseason, but injuries have piled up. They’ve yet to see a healthy offensive line. No one knows when LJ Scott is coming back. Cody White and Jalen Nailor are both out. I already mentioned Josiah Scott and Tyson Smith. I understand you shouldn’t use injuries as a crutch; other guys have to step up, and I believe they will once they become adjusted to their new roles. But at some point you have to take a step back and evaluate.

I’m almost positive the fan base is split down the middle on this topic. Half of everyone thinks MSU is closer to the 2017 season than the let down of 2016. Others think that this is the beginning of the end and if Dantonio doesn’t make major changes, MSU won’t get back to where they once were.

BSD: The Spartans are two-touchdown underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the game going for Michigan State?

TOC: Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have been at their best when being pegged as an underdog. But I don’t see it happening for Michigan State this weekend. Penn State is out for blood after their one-point loss to Ohio State and they had an extra week to prepare.

PSU 34, MSU 24

Thanks again to McLain for taking the time to answer our questions. For more on Michigan State sports all year round, check out The Only Colors!