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?
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.
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No. 20 Baker Steinkuhler, DT, 2011-2012: Perhaps the best way to show his impact was how his absence, due to injury, shaped the 2012 Big Ten Championship game. Without him, Nebraska seemed powerless to stop Wisconsin’s running game. Steinkuhler had 87 tackles and 12 for loss over the last two seasons of his career. He didn’t miss a start for three seasons — until the Big Ten Championship.
No. 19 Eric Martin, LB/DE, 2011-2012: A great special teams player in his first two years at Nebraska, Martin found his footing in his final two seasons at NU, especially in 2012, when he had 18 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He was first-team All-Big Ten as a result.
No. 18 Jeremiah Sirles, OT, 2011-2013: There aren’t many offensive linemen on the list, but Sirles — a versatile, steady performer who didn’t miss a start in his final two seasons — deserves mention. He played left and right tackle as injuries to teammates dictated and won second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012.
No. 17 Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, 2011-2013: He seemed headed for a footnote career — an interception in the big comeback win over Ohio State in 2011 — until a spectacular senior year, in which he had four interceptions, 12 pass breakups and made second-team All-Big Ten. He had interceptions in four straight games, too.
No. 16 Quincy Enunwa, WR, 2011-2013: He might have cracked the top five had NU not wasted his freshman year on a handful of plays. Enunwa was raw out of high school, but by his senior year, he wasn’t just a good blocker and a hard guy to tackle — he was a top-shelf receiver. In 2013, he had 51 catches for 753 yards and a school-record 12 touchdowns, the last of which was a 99-yarder to beat Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
No. 15 Alfonzo Dennard, CB, 2011: Even if his best season was 2010, Dennard won Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year in 2011. Dennard most notably shut down Michigan State’s B.J. Cunningham, who was held without a catch in the 2011 game in Lincoln. Teams often threw away from Dennard during his senior year.
No. 14 Ciante Evans, CB, 2011-2013: He started 33 games and really hit his stride in 2013, when he had 11 tackles for loss and four interceptions on his way to first-team All-Big Ten honors. Evans was versatile enough to play nickel for NU and sometimes gets lost in the shuffle in recent Husker history.
No. 13 Stanley Morgan, WR, 2015-present: Poised to rise deep into the top 10 by the end of his senior year, Morgan will likely end his career as one of the best receivers in Nebraska football history. He broke the team’s single-season record for receiving yards last year with 986 yards. The career records for catches, yards and even touchdowns are also in sight. He has 1,743 yards and 15 touchdowns in his career thus far.
No. 12 Tommy Armstrong, QB, 2013-2016: He played in 45 games, started 44 and had his share of great moments — 2014 Iowa, 2015 Michigan State and 2016 Oregon. He also won two bowl games. He had 8,871 career passing yards, 1,819 rushing yards and 90 total touchdowns. He was tough as nails, too, but rarely played his best when Nebraska had the most to gain.
No. 11 Randy Gregory, DE, 2013-2014: Easily the most gifted Nebraska athlete of the Big Ten era, Gregory ran and leapt like a puma. Is it unfair to have him outside the top 10? Many would say yes. For me, he’s No. 11. When Gregory was good — for the last half of 2013 — he was great, but his up-and-down play in 2014 drops him a little bit on the list. Gregory left after his junior year to play in the NFL.
No. 10 Nate Gerry, S, 2013-2016: The man made a lot of plays at Nebraska, especially those 13 interceptions and 19 pass breakups. Gerry could be inconsistent, but he tended to raise his game deeper into Big Ten play. His signature game might have been 2016 Wisconsin, when he had two interceptions, or 2014 Iowa, when he had an end-zone pick and 15 tackles.
No. 9 Jordan Westerkamp, WR, 2013-2016: No recent Husker receiver had more highlight catches and plays than “Westy,” who was a sturdy option on third down and on the receiving end of Hail Mary play in the 2013 Northwestern game. Clutch when it counted — on fourth down against Oregon in 2016, on the final drive against Michigan State in 2015 — Westerkamp finished with 2,474 yards receiving.
No. 8 Maliek Collins, DT, 2013-2015: Focused from the day he got on campus, Collins missed only one game over three seasons before declaring early for the NFL Draft. His signature season came in 2014 as a sophomore, when he finished with 14 tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hurries. Collins was one of the best high school recruits of the Bo Pelini era.
No. 7 Spencer Long, OG, 2011-2013: The best offensive lineman in the Big Ten era was, of course, a walk-on. Long was a nimble-but-powerful road grader at guard, capable of getting out in front of a ballcarrier or warding off a blitz. After making first-team All-Big Ten in 2012, his senior year in 2013 was cut short by an injury at Purdue.
No. 6 Will Compton, LB, 2011-2012: A lunch-pail guy who emerged as one of Nebraska’s best pure leaders in the Big Ten era. Compton had 192 tackles, 13 for loss and an interception returned for a touchdown over his last two seasons. He was a big part of NU's first two Big Ten teams, arguably its two best, including the divisional championship team in 2012.
No. 5 Kenny Bell, WR, 2011-2014: He holds Nebraska’s career records for receptions and receiving yards, and he had his share of highlight plays — that one-handed catch against Illinois defied logic. Bell’s speed made him a deep threat that opened up the rest of the field, and he had a memorable kickoff return touchdown to help beat Penn State in 2013. He peaked as a sophomore — 50 catches for 863 yards and eight touchdowns — but he may have been at his best in the 2013 Michigan State game when he caught seven passes for 81 yards against elite corners. He was a fan favorite for his smile, his friendliness and, yes, the hair.
No. 4 Rex Burkhead, RB, 2011-2012: As beloved as any running back in Husker history. Burkhead was a smiling, often quiet battler who had sweet moves and a lot of toughness to plow through injuries. His junior year in 2011 — when he ran for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns — was notable, and Burkhead played in eight games as a senior, overcoming a knee injury suffered in the season opener.
No. 3 Taylor Martinez, QB, 2011-2013: Too high? Think again. Nebraska wins the Big Ten Legends crown in 2012 because of Martinez’s ability to pull big plays from seemingly thin air, and coaches voted him first-team All-Big Ten too. His junior season — 2,871 yards passing, 1,019 yards rushing, 33 total touchdowns — was marked by double-digit comeback wins over Wisconsin, Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan State. Martinez’s senior season was marred by a dislocated toe, but he didn’t miss a game in 2011 or 2012.
No. 2 Lavonte David, LB, 2011: He played just one year in the Big Ten, but what a season! David was Big Ten Linebacker of the Year and an All-American with 133 tackles, 13 for loss, 5.5 sacks and two interceptions. His superb play helped the Huskers win two of their biggest games in 2011 — Penn State and Ohio State — and his pass-coverage skills were crucial in wins over Iowa and Washington. David is one of the best linebackers in school history.
No. 1 Ameer Abdullah, RB, 2011-2014: A no-brainer, Abdullah is one of the best running backs in school history, finishing with 4,744 yards rushing and becoming the first Husker to have three 1,000-yard seasons. A bizarre goal-line injury against Purdue in 2014 slowed his Heisman and Doak Walker campaigns, and also kept him from setting the school’s all-time rushing record. Still, that season — with his masterpiece of 229 yards on 35 carries against Miami — won’t be soon forgotten. Nebraska missed Abdullah more in 2015 and 2016 than fans may appreciate.