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Know Thy Opponent 2018: Michigan State Spartans

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It seems like almost every starter returns for the Spartans in 2018

SDCCU Holiday Bowl - Michigan State v Washington State Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

As recently as 2006 the all-time series between Michigan State and Purdue was tied. Since then the programs have diverged greatly. The Spartans have won three conference titles since then, a Rose Bowl, and made an appearance in the College Football Playoff. Purdue... has made three lower tier bowl games and has technically had five coaches since its last win in the series in 2006 (Danny Hope, Patrick Higgins, Darrell Hazell, Gerad Parker, and Jeff Brohm).

These are two programs that have often been pretty close to each other throughout Big Ten history. Before this recent 7-game win streak for the Spartans Purdue had won seven of the previous eight. This includes the infamous 3-game winning streak over Nick Saban that is still active to this day and the reason Alabama continues to duck Purdue.

Purdue’s trip to East Lansing this season is probably the toughest road game of the year. The Boilers have a reasonable to good chance of winning at Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, and Indiana, but a win in East Lansing would be a shocker. Mark Dantonio has built a program that contends for Big Ten titles, and aside from a blip in 2016 it has been excellent over the last five years. This one will be tough.

2017 Record: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten East

Bowl Result: Beat Washington State 42-17 in Holiday Bowl

Blog Representation: The Only Colors

Series with Purdue: Michigan State leads 35-28-3

Last Purdue win: 17-15 at Purdue on 11/4/2006

Last Michigan State win: 24-21 on 10/3/2015

Head Coach: Mark Dantonio (100-45 in 12th season at Michigan State, 118-62 overall)

Last Season for the Spartans:

After a disappointing 3-9 season in 2016 the Spartans bounced back in a big way last year. They had an excellent 10-3 season that featured only a home loss to Notre Dame, a 48-3 beating at Ohio State, and a triple overtime road loss to Northwestern. They finished the year in the top 20, which was an admirable bounceback. They’re best win was 27-24 at home over No. 7 Penn State, knocking the Nittany Lions out of the Big Ten title race. Their mastery of in-state rival Michigan continued with a 14-10 win in Ann Arbor.

For the most part it was your typical Michigan State team under Dantonio. It had a solid defense that rarely gave up many points. They held opponents under 17 points eight times in 13 games. The offense wasn’t exactly lighting people up, but the defense was more than enough to win 10 games.

As for Purdue, Darrell Hazell had a bizarre hex on Dantonio. He was still 0-3 against him, but in all three games Purdue played the Spartans much, much closer than expected. Michigan state won a 14-0 defensive struggle in 2013, then the next year Austin Appleby had a chance to drive for a late tying TD before he was pick sixed in a 45-31 loss. In 2015 Purdue dropped a 24-21 decision at then No. 2 Michigan State and had a late drive for the win fizzle in Michigan State territory. Considering that Hazell’s teams were blown out in most of his games, those are practically wins.

Michigan State Offense

The Spartans have a lot of good pieces back that gained experience last season. Brian Lewerke came on in his first season as the full-time starter at quarterback and was pretty good. He finished with 2,793 yards passing on a 59% completion rate. He threw 20 TDs against only 7 interceptions, so he was perfectly fine. He can have a 3,000 yard/30 TD season as a reasonable expectation. He was also solid on the ground with 559 yards rushing and five TDs. He will be one of the best dual-threat QBs we will face.

Joining Lewerke in the backfield is LJ Scott, who rushed for 898 yards and 8 TDs last season. He also caught 20 passes out of the backfield for another 146 yards and a TD, thus showing his versatility. With Lewerke the Spartans have a solid 1-2 running game on the read-option.

The top receivers from last season are all back. Felton Davis III (55-776-9) and Darrell Stewart Jr. (50-501-2) will combine with Cody White (35-490-4) form a group that caught 140 passes last season for more than 1,700 yards and 15 scores. Matt Sokol even adds more danger to the offense with 21 receptions for 222 yards and a score.

Helping the attack is an experienced offensive line. Luke Campbell and Kevin Jarvis were solid last season as they gained experience. Overall, there are five players that have started for at least one season along the line. This gives Michigan State one of the most complete returning teams in the country in terms of starters back.

Michigan State Defense

Last year Michigan State’s defense was young and it was fantastic. They finished the year in the top five nationally of the S&P and 15 of the top 17 players are back:

The last time the Spartans had a defense this good, it was all-or-nothing — in 2013, they ranked first in success rate allowed but only 70th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the offense’s successful plays); that worked out because efficiency is the biggest, most sustainable factor in football. But last year’s MSU defense took a little bit more off of its drive and dealt with fewer huge glitches. Only five FBS teams allowed fewer gains of 30-plus yards, and only 14 allowed a lower success rate.

Kenny Willekes was a force up front with 73 tackles and 7 sacks. Of those tackles 14.5 were for loss as the former walk-on lived in opposing backfields. Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk were both solid as new guys in the tackle rotation and should be excellent.

At linebacker Joe Bachie took over in the middle and had a great first season. He led the team with 100 tackles, 8.5 for loss, and 3.5 sacks. For good measure he also intercepted three passes.

In the defensive secondary all four starters are back. Justin Laeyne and Josh Butler will be back to start at both safety spots. Khari Willies and David Dowell give the Spartans to solid players at safety in the middle. Dowell also led the team with five interceptions last year. This is a group that might be the best in the Big Ten when it comes to pass defense.

Michigan State Special Teams

Like on offense and defense, most of the main special teams contributors are back. Matt Coghlin was solid as a freshman kicker, hitting 15 of 19 field goals with a long of 46 yards. Jake Hartbarger averaged a respectable 42 yards per punt.

In the return game Michigan State did not have a lot, but both of its returners are back. Laress Nelson averaged 4.9 yards per punt return and Connor Heyward had 21.8 yards per kick return.

Game Outlook

Playing on the road this will be tough. Michigan State often has one of the best defenses in the nation and this is no different. They are not going to give up a lot of points. The offense may only score about 20-25 per game, but when the defense gives up only 10-14 you can win a lot of games.

This will really be Jeff Brohm’s passing offense against an excellent pass defense. They are not going to give up much, so how creative Purdue gets will be a factor. Defensively I think we can hang with their offense, but with another year’s experience they can go on slow, grinding drives to kill the clock.

I also wonder how Purdue will respond in this game after facing Ohio State the week before. Getting those two back-to-back is as difficult as anyone could ask for in crossover opponents. Most Purdue fans would absolutely take a split between the two, but a loss in both games is much more likely.

Way-too-Early Prediction

The Spartans are awfully good at home and don’t make mistakes. Their defense is dominant and the offense can slowly where us down. Purdue’s best bet in this one is to get an early lead and hold on. If you make the Spartans play from behind they don’t have a high powered offense to catch up. Getting ahead of this defense will be difficult, though. Michigan State 24, Purdue 16