Michigan State was the one team Darrell Hazell managed to play close. I have no idea why, either. This year the Spartans return to the schedule for the first time since 2015, but it marks the 4th time in five games where Purdue has had to go to East Lansing. To have a look at the Spartans I asked some questions of Kyle Thele at The Only Colors.
T-Mill: After a down year in 2016 Michigan State bounced back big time in 2017. What are areas of concern when it comes to sustaining that?
Kyle: Taking a big look at Mark Dantonio’s tenure at MSU, he’s gone through down years before, specifically 2009 and 2012. Not coincidentally, those two seasons were also years of turnover at the quarterback position, similarly to 2016. What made that season different was also a huge drop off on defense. Last year it looked like both of those issues were solved. As long as Lewerke can play at least at the same level as last year, if not improve, and the defense can remain a strength, there shouldn’t be much of a fear of falling back into the ugliness of 2016.
T-Mill: Darrell Hazell was awful, but somehow played three close games against Michigan State. Do you have any idea how he did that because we don’t?
Kyle: I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, Darrell Hazzell was clearly an elite coach... But in all honesty, there isn’t really a good explanation for why those games played out the way they did. All three were totally different, one a shootout, another a defensive struggle and the third something in between (when MSU decided to stop playing football in the second half of 2015). The closest thing I can get to an explanation is that the Big Ten is hard and Big Ten players are good, no matter who their coach is.
T-Mill: A lot of Bill C’s preview was about Michigan State’s returning experience. Are there any holes?
Kyle: The weird thing about MSU’s experience is that the most experienced players are all still really young. The vast majority of the returning starters are sophomores or juniors who have only had one year of playing time. With that in mind, the biggest holes or concerns is what if those players don’t continue to improve, or even worse, go into a sophomore slump? There is no experience coming off the bench. The young players looked amazing last year, but they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year.
T-Mill: Is Brian Lewerke in line to be the Big Ten’s best quarterback?
Kyle: If Lewerke ends up being the best quarterback in the Big Ten, that may end up saying more about the rest of the conference than Lewerke. He is an extremely talented quarterback who can beat defenses on the ground and through the air. But he has a lot of work to do. His accuracy last season was suspect, and got bailed out by some really nice catches by his receivers. He’s also got a big fumbling issue to deal with. The excitement around Lewerke is deserved, but for now it’s just excitement. He will need to still take a big step if he wants to be considered the best in the conference.
T-Mill: What would it take for Purdue to pull off the upset?
Kyle: In all honesty, I’m pretty high on Purdue this year. I was really impressed with what they did last year and keeping the coaching staff in place is enormous. I’m really surprised they aren’t getting more love in the Big Ten West. I still think MSU will be favored heading into their game, but I don’t think it will be a huge spread. The key to beating MSU for anyone is simple, put up points quickly and force Lewerke/LJ Scott to turn the ball over. Purdue showed flashes of offensive firepower last season and ranked middle of the pack in turnovers. If they can put those two together, I wouldn’t be surprised if they left East Lansing with a win.
T-Mill: How do you see this game playing out?
Kyle: MSU plays Purdue the week after Michigan and two weeks before Ohio State, this is prime letdown game positioning. The worst thing that could happen to Purdue is MSU losing at home the week before to Michigan. Assuming that won’t happen (because scUM, amiright?!?!), I think the game is going to be really close. I’ll take MSU to win 34-26.