Barfknecht: Michigan State's roster remains, but will success of rebound season?

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He also ran for 559 yards and five touchdowns.

There’s a lot to like about Michigan State football for 2018.

The Spartans bounced back from a 3-9 record in 2016 to go 10-3 and tie for second in the Big Ten’s loaded East Division. They accomplished that with one of the country’s youngest depth charts, which means they are loaded with experience this year with 21 returning starters.

“We’ve got guys who have played at a high level and played in pressure games with big crowds around and on TV,” said 12th-year MSU coach Mark Dantonio. “And there’s very good carryover from last season.

“We have a good mindset and good chemistry. It’s a fun team to coach.”

Maybe the most notable returnee is an All-Big Ten candidate at quarterback, Brian Lewerke.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior from Phoenix completed 59 percent of his passes for 2,793 yards and 20 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He also ran for 559 yards and five touchdowns.

Another plus for Michigan State is that the other powers in its division — Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan — lost premier players to graduation or early entry to the NFL. Among them: PSU running back Saquon Barkley, OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett and UM defensive tackle Maurice Hurst.

“Our goals are always to win a championship,” Dantonio said at the end of spring practice. “The bar has been set here. That’s where our focus is at all times.”

So what’s not to like about Michigan State, picked in many preseason top 10s and a schedule with Ohio State and Michigan at home?

I have a few questions.

Six of the Spartans’ seven conference victories came by these margins: 7, 4, 3, 8, 3 and 10 points. Were they fortunate to win that many tight games or skilled at closing?

The two biggest victories of the year came during two of the weirdest weather days.

Michigan State’s 14-10 win over Michigan came during a game-long rainstorm. The Wolverines, who finished the year unranked, outgained MSU but finished minus-five in turnovers.

Penn State looked like it might romp over Michigan State on Nov. 4. The visiting Nittany Lions were ahead 14-7 and had gained 215 yards by early in the second quarter when the game was delayed for lightning.

The word “delay” barely begins to describe what happened.

The game stood still for 3½ hours before the line of storms diminished, the danger threat ended and teams were called back from the locker room. More than seven hours after kickoff, Michigan State pulled out a 27-24 win in a game almost all said changed drastically because of the stoppage.

The Spartans’ two biggest losses also raised some red flags.

At home, they trailed Notre Dame by three touchdowns at halftime and by four in the third quarter before losing 38-18. Then a week after upsetting Penn State, Michigan State went to Ohio State and got obliterated 48-3.

Going 10-3 the way MSU did makes you think a lot of things fell right.

That hardly discounts the accomplishment. But it makes me pause before thinking that a 10-win season and the number of returnees automatically moves the Spartans into the top 10.

Lewerke had good numbers, but I want to see him do it again, especially in a season in which Michigan State is more hunted than hunter. I can’t believe MSU wants him to have 124 rushing attempts again. Lewerke can extend and make plays with his feet, but the wear-and-tear risk of that many runs is problematic.

From 2013-15, the Spartans claimed two Big Ten championships, earned a spot in the College Football Playoff, won Rose and Cotton Bowls and finished a collective 36-5.

So was the 3-9 in 2016 a total anomaly? Or was the 10-3 last season a bit of an outlier? This looks more like an 8-4 team to me.

Lee covers Big Ten and Nebraska football, Nebraska basketball and college athletic financial and administrative issues for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @leebeeowh. Phone: 402-444-1024.

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