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Know your 2018 Northwestern football opponent, Week 6: Michigan State

The Spartans have reloaded after a ten-win season.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-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.

The next team in our series is Michigan State. You may know them pretty well since Northwestern has played them in the last two seasons.

The Basics

Returning production: 92 percent

2017 record: 10-3 (7-2 B1G)

Coach: Mark Dantonio (100-45, 12th year)

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.

2017 S&P+ Overall: 19th

2017 S&P+ Offense: 92nd

2017 S&P+ Defense: 4th

2018 S&P+ Projection: 11th

2017 Capsule

After a horrendous 3-9 season in 2016, one might have expected 2017 to be a rebuilding year for Michigan State. That was not the case. The Spartans went 10-3, beat Michigan and Penn State, and won the Holiday Bowl over Washington State in a successful campaign for Mark Dantonio and Co.

Michigan State started the year as a young-ish team with plenty of questions, but they answered just about all of them in 2017. Most importantly, the defense returned to a top level after an uncharacteristically bad 2016. Michigan State brilliantly retooled its defense and turned in game-winning performances against Iowa, Penn State and Michigan.

Michigan State’s two worst defensive showings of the season came at a bad time in terms of the championship hunt. In a trip to Ryan Field on October 28th, Michigan State played well for most of the game, only to allow three successive touchdowns from Northwestern in overtime. Two weeks later, Michigan State got hammered 48-3 by Ohio State, essentially ending its hopes of a Big Ten East title.

However, Sparty closed the season out strong with three wins over Maryland, Rutgers and No. 18 Washington State. This team is bringing back the vast majority of its contributors from last season and should be looking to avenge two consecutive tough losses to the Wildcats.

Offensive Overview

If anything is going to hold Michigan State back in 2018, it’ll be the offense. Despite Michigan State’s 10-3 record, the offense left much to be desired in both traditional and advanced metrics. Michigan State were 82nd in the FBS in yards per game. By offensive S&P+, Michigan State ranked 92nd overall. The offense was not explosive whatsoever, ranking 100th in IsoPPP.

But this would be a dumb segment if I just rattled off Michigan State’s statistical rankings from 2017. Michigan State ran a conservative scheme in Lewerke’s first season that relied heavily on L.J. Scott. While it wasn’t very efficient, Michigan State’s offense was still effective enough to win games, and that’s what counts.

Lewerke’s first season as the starter was a success. He threw for 20 touchdowns and just seven interceptions and was generally good. He should be even better next season with a seasoned offensive line and a solid receiving corps. All four of Lewerke’s top receivers are back this year, including Felton Davis III, who you may remember after he torched Northwestern’s secondary for 95 yards and two touchdowns last year. Running back L.J. Scott had a somewhat disappointing year in 2017, but he will return for his senior season and should get another large workload.

The pieces are there for Michigan State’s offense to take a big step forward. We’ll see if Dantonio’s staff allows Lewerke the freedom that Connor Cook and Kirk Cousins had in previous seasons.

Defensive Overview

Michigan State ranked near the top of every defensive metric you can find last year. They are only losing defensive end Demetrius Cooper and starting linebacker Chris Frey. Everyone else is coming back for another ride. This defense is going to be really good again and should prove a stern test for whatever Northwestern offense shows up in East Lansing.

Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel essentially hit the jackpot with this group of players. Anyone he plugged into this defense last year became a top-tier Big Ten contributor. Take sophomore walk-on Kenny Willekes for example. He went from complete obscurity to notching seven sacks last season. Sophomore middle linebacker Joe Bachie had 7.5 career tackles heading into 2017 and blossomed into a Third Team All-Big Ten inside linebacker. The secondary, entirely comprised of underclassmen, put together a top 20 passing defense out of nowhere.

Michigan State will excel at stopping the run in 2018. Michigan State’s opponents could muster any rushing attack at all in 2017, best evidenced for our audience by Northwestern’s abysmal 2.3 yards per carry in last season’s game. Michigan State might regress slightly on defense, but this side of the ball takes Michigan State from a middling Big Ten team to a possible division contender.

Three Players to Know

Brian Lewerke

Despite Lewerke’s good work last season, he’s still flown under the radar in some circles due to his lack of gaudy passing stats and lack of big play ability in 2018. Lewerke is certainly no game manager (I seem to remember he was plenty explosive against Northwestern in 2016) and he is due to take another step forward in 2018. Lewerke doesn’t make too many mistakes, is a solid pocket passer and is a threat as a runner to boot (Lewerke had an astonishing 559 yards rushing last year). If Michigan State gets a breakout season from Lewerke, it could even content for a playoff spot.

Andrew Dowell

2017 Team MVP Joe Bachie grabbed all the headlines, but his linebacking partner Andrew Dowell also played very well last year. 74 tackles (2.5 for loss) and four pass breakups are nothing to sneeze at, and the senior will come into his final year as the undisputed starter at the Star linebacker spot (21 career starts). Dowell was a higher rated prospect than Bachie on and is definitely going to have a big impact on this defense.

Kenny Willekes

As mentioned, Willekes went from a walk-on to Third Team All-Big Ten in about a year. Willekes’ stunning rise provided Michigan State an able replacement for superstar defensive lineman Malik McDowell (sidenote: McDowell was drafted by the Seahawks but suffered an ATV accident before he played a game and is probably going to get cut). Michigan State really lucked out with Willekes, who had 14 stuffs, 54 tackles and seven sacks last season. He’s a dynamic pass rusher and a great athlete, once again proving that recruiting rankings don’t actually mean everything.