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Know your Northwestern 2016 Opponent, Week 7: Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State is coming off another stellar season under Mark Dantonio but is facing questions on both sides of the ball. They will face off with Northwestern in East Lansing in Week 7.

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

With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.

Now, on to Week 7, when Northwestern will square off with Big Ten foe Michigan State in East Lansing. The Spartans are coming off a 12-win season and a CFP berth but haven’t faced Chicago’s Big Ten team since a 30-6 trouncing of the Wildcats in Evanston back in 2013.

The Basics

Returning Starters: 10 (4 offense, 6 defense)

Returning Experience: 45%

2015 Record: 12-2 (7-1 Big Ten)

Coach: Mark Dantonio, 9th year (87-33)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2015 S&P+ Overall: 13th

2015 S&P+ Offense: 28th

2015 S&P+ Defense: 6th

2016 S&P+ Projection: 22nd

2015 Capsule

It was a typical year for Mark Dantonio and the Michigan State in 2015; the Spartans coasted to an 11-1 regular season record, Dantonio’s fifth 11+ win season in eight years (ho hum). The only blip coming in a one-point loss to Nebraska on the road in controversial fashion. They then split their two ‘postseason’ contests, outlasting Iowa 16-13 in the Big Ten Championship game only to be absolutely tally-whacked 38-0 in the CFP semifinal by the eventual champion Alabama a few weeks later.

Overall, though, it’s hard to see 2015 as anything but a rousing success for Sparty. The Alabama debacle will leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, especially for a program as esteemed as Michigan State, but if I were a Sparty fan and you told me last summer that MSU’s season would end with 12 wins, a Big Ten title and a CFP berth, I’d take it 10 times out of 10.

P.S. Michigan State and Northwestern didn’t actually technically play last season, but since it seems like transitive victories are the only things that matter in college football anymore, I’m willing to chalk that Nebraska loss as a W for Pat Fitzgerald and company.

P.S.S. The Spartans should also receive due credit for single-handedly creating the cultural phenomena that was ‘Michigan Guy’ (0:15). The 2015 college football season wouldn’t have been complete without him.

Offensive overview

The Spartans are only returning four starters on the offensive side of the ball this season for a unit that was pedestrian in every basic statistical respect in 2015. They lost first-team All-Big Ten tackle Jack Conklin, first-team All-Big Ten quarterback Connor Cook, first-team All-Big Ten wide receiver Aaron Burbridge and third-team All-Big Ten guard Donovan Clark, along with four other UDFAs, to the NFL in April. Yikes. Give your eyes a rest after that monstrosity of a sentence. The point is, Sparty is going to have adjust to life without a LOT of decorated talent on the offensive side of the ball in 2015.

The departures of Cook and Burbridge represent the two most glaring holes left by this class. Cook and Burbridge truly established a rapport in their final season, with Burbridge stepping in as the Spartans’ unquestioned No. 1 wideout. He reeled in 85 receptions for 1258 yards (both good for first in the Big Ten) and accounted for seven of Cook’s 24 touchdowns in 2015. Cook’s second-favorite option, Macgarrett Kings Jr., who had five touchdowns in 2015, is also gone. That’s going to be tough production to replace, especially for a team desperate for experience at wideout and in the midst of choosing Cook’s replacement between fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor and junior Damion Terry.

Sparty will return tailbacks Gerald Holmes, LJ Scott and Madre London this season. That’s the good news. Michigan State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman used them in committee last season and it’s easy to envision that happening again this year. The issue, of course, is that they’ll be running behind an offensive line with three new starters and without a real picture of what the team’s aerial attack will look like. If nothing materializes on that front, it’ll be easy for hard-nosed teams to pack the box without fear of being beaten over the top by a Cook-Burbridge style combo.

The silver-and-green lining here is that this unit wasn’t the team’s strong suit last season either and they were still pretty darn good.

Defensive overview

And that brings us to the defense. The unit drove the Spartans’ success in 2015 and will be expected to carry the load again with six starters (two of whom were All-Big Ten selectees in 2015) returning.

Defensive tackle Malik McDowell, the only returning starter on the defensive line, is the big name here. He’ll look to fill at least part of the gaping hole on the line left by departing defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who registered 10.5 sacks (along with 15 tackles for loss) in 2015. McDowell was a worthy peer on the Spartan line last season, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors and registering 4.5 sacks (13 tackles for loss) from the nose tackle position. If he can make another leap in his junior season, it’ll be a big boost for the Spartan front seven.

The Spartan secondary represents the team’s most seasoned personnel; they’ll be returning three of four positions in 2016: safeties Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson and cornerback Darian Hicks. This unit actually underperformed by the numbers last season, as Michigan State ranked just 76th in the FBS in passing yards allowed, but for a team undergoing a lot of roster upheaval at the moment, the experience of this unit is key. The group will only improve with another year of college football under their belt and their defense as a whole can form an identity around turnovers. Michigan State’s defense picked off opposing quarterbacks 15 times and forced 13 fumbles in 2015, which is definitely something to build on. The key will be that the front seven continues to pressure opposing quarterbacks with regularity.

Three players to know

RB LJ Scott

Scott appeared in all 14 Michigan State games last season, only starting one (against Michigan), but he still led the team in carries (146), yards (699) and touchdowns (11). He also has a knack for the spotlight, making big plays in big games (50 yards on 10 carries in fourth quarter against Ohio State; two rushing touchdowns against Michigan). If MSU offensive coordinator Jim Bollman decides to move away from a by-committee style game plan or if injuries plague the Michigan State backfield, look for Scott to take a leading role in the Spartan offense in 2016.

TE Josiah Price

For a team starving for assets in the passing game, tight end Josiah Price, who started only three of the 12 games he appeared in last year, has his work cut out for him. Price led Michigan State tight ends in receptions (23) and receiving yards (267) in 2015 and is Michigan State’s all-time leader in touchdowns (16) at the tight end position. Needless to say, if the Spartans are going to begin to replace the gaping holes in production left by Burbridge, Kings Jr. and Cook, Price is going to have to be an integral piece in this offense.

C/G Brian Allen

Notice a trend here? All offensive guys. That’s where all the big questions are for this team, especially on the line, where Allen will be asked to switch primary positions in his junior year. Allen started 12 of 14 games in 2015 (ten at guard), but is listed at center for the upcoming season. He’ll be key in anchoring a line with fresh faces getting heavy reps, keeping O’Conner/Terry on their feet and opening holes for the Spartan tailbacks to go to work.

Summary

We’ve been over a lot of issues Michigan State may run into this season. It’s easy to agonize over such issues, but I’d be surprised if Sparty isn’t near the top of both the Big Ten and the FBS when all is said and done. But with so many unknowns on the offensive side of the ball and defensive line, it’s tough to forecast exactly how well they’ll match up with Northwestern in Week 7. The game being in East Lansing doesn’t bode well for the Wildcats, who will be participating in the third game of their Big Ten slate and looking for a high-quality win to legitimize themselves in the eyes of experts, fans, coaches, committee members, etc. across the country. I’m cautiously pessimistic about Northwestern’s chances. Sparty will be favored in all likelihood, but crazier things have definitely happened (one more time). If you love hard-nosed defense, definitely tune into this one. Should be a doozy.

Game information

Date: Oct. 24

Time: 2:30 p.m. CT

TV: BTN