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The Journal Gazette

Friday, August 16, 2019 1:00 am

Michigan State preview

Spartans seeking offensive answers

NOAH TRISTER | Associated Press

Schedule

Aug. 30: Tulsa, 7 p.m.

Sept. 7: Western Michigan, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 14: Arizona State, 4 p.m.

Sept. 21: at Northwestern, TBA

Sept. 28: Indiana, 3:30 or 4 p.m.

Oct. 5: at Ohio State, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 12: at Wisconsin, 3:30 or 4 p.m.

Oct. 26: Penn State, TBA

Nov. 9: Illinois, TBA

Nov. 16: at Michigan, TBA

Nov. 23: at Rutgers, TBA

Nov. 30: Maryland, TBA

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Seven months ago, Mark Dantonio shook up his offensive staff, keeping his assistants but switching their roles around.

It was a move that reflected the state of the Michigan State program – not necessarily panicking, but certainly aware of some recent shortcomings.

The Spartans went 7-6 last year, and that record was fitting because it felt like several games could have ended with that exact score. The Redbox Bowl actually did – Oregon beat the Spartans 7-6 – and that merely confirmed what had been obvious for a while: Michigan State's offense was a mess.

Dantonio shuffled his staff in an attempt to recapture some of the success his team had in the not-too-distant past. Michigan State won the Big Ten and made the College Football Playoff in 2015, but after that, the Spartans had one terrible season (3-9) and one good one (10-3) before ending up somewhere in between in 2018.

It's an oversimplification to say that this coming season depends on quarterback Brian Lewerke, but he's certainly under scrutiny – because of his position and the way his performance varied over the past couple years.

He had eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season.

Game changers

Michigan State ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense last season, allowing an average of only 17.2 points. That was despite a pedestrian plus-1 turnover margin.

Michigan State finished at plus-13 in 2013, plus-19 in 2014 and plus-14 in 2015. Given the uncertainty on offense at the moment, it would obviously help if the defense can put Lewerke and Co. in as many favorable situations as possible.

Up front

The defensive line figures to be a strength for Michigan State again. Raequan Williams and Kenny Willekes both received first-team All-Big Ten honors from The Associated Press last year. They're back, although Willekes is returning from a broken leg he went down with in the Redbox Bowl.

On the ground

The Spartans were hoping to feature an impressive running game last year led by senior LJ Scott, but he injured his ankle in September and had only 79 carries in his final season at Michigan State. Connor Heyward rushed for 529 yards and five touchdowns. La'Darius Jefferson had 78 carries, although he averaged only 3.3 yards per attempt.

The schedule

The Spartans have three of their biggest league games on the road this season – against Ohio State on Oct. 5, Wisconsin on Oct. 12 and Michigan on Nov. 16. Michigan State does get Penn State in East Lansing on Oct. 26 and Arizona State at home Sept. 14. The Spartans open at home Aug. 30 against Tulsa.