The Wildcats travel to East Lansing to take on a Michigan State team it holds a two-game winning streak over. We chatted with Stephen Brooks, who covers Michigan State for 247Sports.com, to get the low-down on the Spartans. Follow Stephen on Twitter here.
InsideNU: Michigan State’s defense has really picked things up since the season opener again Utah State. What has keyed that change?
Stephen Brooks: MSU has gotten slightly better at defending the short and intermediate passing game, but that’s how everybody attacks the Spartans this year. Their run defense is every bit deserving of the No. 1 ranking, as nobody has been able to come close to establishing a consistent rushing threat so far. MSU hasn’t played the best offenses, sure, but the talent is there to maintain a top-10 unit, at worst, against the run throughout the season. (It finished No. 2 in rushing defense last season.) But the pass defense continues to be the unit’s weakness. Teams can take advantage of speed match-ups on the perimeter against MSU’s linebackers, and that’s where most of the damage has been done, as the corners have played pretty well across the board. MSU has been inconsistent rushing the passer, too.
INU: It seems like Brian Lewerke’s development has stagnated a bit. How would you evaluate his performance this season?
SB: That’s a fair observation, in my opinion. With five interceptions already, he’s on pace to surpass last year’s total of seven by a mile. He’s also lost some fumbles. If his growth is actually stunted, though, I can’t put it all on him. He’s operating behind an offensive line that’s dinged up and wasn’t performing well when it was healthy. That’s caused him to get a bit antsy in the pocket, and he hasn’t had a running game to lean on all season. Dave Warner, MSU’s co-offensive coordinator and play-caller, said he thinks Lewerke has been pressing early in the season, knowing the expectations are high and the ground game hasn’t materialized. Now Lewerke is losing receivers, as starter Cody White broke his hand last week, and starter Darrell Stewart Jr. and backup Jalen Nailor are both questionable for this weekend. So Lewerke has made some poor decisions, but he’s also performed quite well at times in some less-than-ideal circumstances.
INU: Michigan State has suffered quite a few injuries at wide receiver. How does that affect the offense on Saturday? Would you expect the Spartans to try to run the ball more?
SB: So White is out, like I mentioned earlier, and we don’t know yet about Stewart, a starter, and Nailor, a key guy in the rotation. If those two aren’t able to play, guys like fifth-year senior Brandon Sowards, redshirt sophomore Cam Chambers and sophomore Laress Nelson will step in to take those reps. MSU would love to run the ball more, because it doesn’t feel sure of its ability to run on anybody right now. It really needs a shot of confidence in that department. But if the Spartans spin their wheels for another week, it’ll be up to Lewerke and the remaining receivers, notably Felton Davis III, to bail out the offense. I think you could see more targets to the tight ends, an underutilized position so far this season, to make up for some of the lost talent on the perimeter. Lewerke throwing to Davis remains the team’s best chance at moving the chains right now.
INU: The Spartans have struggled to put inferior opponents away so far this year. How would you evaluate MSU’s abilities to finish games? How can they improve?
SB: Not to be too repetitive, but a running game would go a long way. The Spartans are 104th nationally in rushing offense. Every extra minute and extra play they can keep their defense rested, especially in the fourth quarter, is a plus. They lost the Arizona State gave basically giving up two big drives all night, and Indiana was able to score three times in the fourth quarter. Overall, MSU has been outscored 51-18 in fourth quarters this season. The offense needs to be able to get that last score to put things out of reach, or at least limit the defense’s exposure to make-or-break drives.
INU: What’s your prediction for Saturday’s outcome?
SB: MSU hasn’t played inspiring football through four games, but I’m still not ready to abandon belief that there’s a good team lurking beneath this shell of mediocrity. I need to see them get beaten up by a Big Ten team before I totally re-calibrate my expectations. Speaking of beaten up, I can’t imagine Northwestern’s confidence is in a healthy state at all after how last week’s game played out. The Wildcats should be able to move the ball fairly effectively through the air, but I don’t see them finishing many drives in the end zone. I’ll say MSU 24, Northwestern 16.