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Michigan State Football Preview: Game Five — BYU

Michigan State looks to avoid a losing record as they face the Cougars of Brigham Young

Toledo v BYU Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

After another sobering loss — probably one of the worst in the Dantonio era — the Spartans return home to a scheduling quirk and face a non-conference opponent in BYU.

The Cougars sport a serious running attack and (last weeks 53 points against Toledo notwithstanding) a rather stout defense.

How do they match up? Can MSU break their two-game skid? Why is life so hard? We’ll help you try and snap out of it in this week’s preview.

How We’re Feeling.gif

We’ve got no RUNNING GAME, we’ve got no PASS RUSH, our pets HEADS ARE FALLING OFF

The Spartans are on the verge of a full blown meltdown. Offensively, with the exception of One Majestic Night in South Bend (Band name, I called it), they cannot run the ball and they don’t have a quarterback capable of carrying them the way Connor Cook did.

Defensively, the front four cannot get home on their own despite having a top-10 pick in Malik McDowell, their top two linebackers are out again and the secondary is more #OpenSkies than #NoFlyZone.

It’s bleak and, at least to my knowledge, Mark Dantonio doesn’t have a magic wand he can wave to make it all better. And if he does, why hasn’t he used it yet? WHAT DARK MAGIC ARE YOU HIDING MARK?!

Silver lining, at least we haven’t suffered the way BYU has. This team that has lost some heartbreakers already. I mean, look at this schedule...


Three L’s by seven total points to two Pac-12 teams and a Big-12 team. Those are good showings but also SO BRUTAL. Hopefully they come out flat after the exhilarating win over Toledo and MSU can roll. But really that would be great because, as you can see, I am visibly shaken by this 2-2 start.

But all hope is not lost. The season is still (relatively) young and things can turn around. But make no mistake, this is a must win game for MSU.

BYU Offense vs Michigan State Defense

Arizona v BYU
Williams has almost 800 yards through five games
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Notable Cougars

  • Leading Passer: QB Taysom Hill — 102-for-171 (59.6%) 1,117 yard, 5 TD/6 INT
  • Leading Rusher: RB Jamaal Williams — 109 carries, 703 yards, 8 TD
  • Leading Receiver: WR Nick Kurtz — 18 catches, 205 yards, 1 TD

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Tackler: S Demetrious Cox/LB Chris Frey — 27 (tie)
  • Leading Sack Artist: DT Raequan Williams — 2 sacks
  • Leading Ball Hawk: CB Vayante Copeland/LB Andrew Dowell/CB Darian Hicks/LB Jon Reschke — 1 (tie)

BYU has a pretty incredible quarterbacking lineage. Between Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer there were an awful lot of wins and broken records.

This year’s team is not an aerial attack, however. Rather, they most of their work on the ground behind running back Jamaal Williams, who put up an absurd 286 yards last week against Toledo. Through 5 games, Williams already has 8 touchdowns on the ground (4 shy of his single season high of 12) and is only 73 yards shy of passing his second-highest single season rushing total (775 yards in 2012).

He appears to pretty good at football.

Williams isn’t the only running threat. Quarterback Taysom Hill — who has been at BYU for so long I’m not entirely convinced wasn’t teammates with Steve Young — has 55 carries for 228 yards and 2 TD’s on the year. Hill’s best year running-wise was 2013 when he ran for 1,344 yards and 10 scores. He’s capable with his feet. $20 he’s drafted by whoever Rex Ryan is coaching next year.

The trade-off with Hill is he is not much of a passer. He completes a shade under 60% of his throws and his picks (6 - irony!) outnumber his touchdowns (5) so far this year. The Spartan secondary has been OK, but also hasn’t been tested much outside of late against ND which wasn’t awesome. Theoretically at least, they shouldn’t be stretched too much here but do need to be aware of receiver Nick Kurtz, whose size (6’6” 215) could pose issues namely in the red zone.

The Spartan run defense has been the strength of...well, really the entire team to date but slowing Hilliams (GET IT) will be difficult, especially down their two best lineman for the first half.

In case you had blissfully forgotten McDowell was suspended due to a, um, questionable targeting call late in last week’s loss to Indiana. On top of that Chef Williams is out with an arm injury. Oh, and Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke still aren’t ready to return. That’s arguably your four best run stuffers all missing against a team that wants to pound the ball down your throat. Not ideal.

Keeping this close in the first half will be critical to MSU’s chances. That was a sad sentence to write.

Michigan State Offense vs BYU Defense

Michigan State v Indiana Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Notable Spartans

  • Leading Passer: Tyler O’Connor — 71-for-117 (60.7%) 918 yards, 8 TD, 5 INT
  • Leading Rusher: LJ Scott — 67 carries, 302 yards, 2 TD
  • Leading Receiver: 18 catches, 244 yards, 2 TD

Notable Cougars

  • Leading Tackler: LB Butch Pau’u — 42 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT
  • Leading Sack Artist: LB Francis Bernard — 2 sacks
  • Leading Ball Hawk: S Kai Nacua — 4 INT


That’s the best word to describe MSU’s offense through four games. There have been problems at each position group but it all starts up front where the big fellas — especially on the left side — whom I praised after running all over Notre Dame, have gotten punked two weeks in a row.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to some changes. Kodi Keiler has taken over for the overmatched David Beedle at left tackle, Benny McGowan is starting at left guard and Brian Allen at center. Keiler played tackle until this year, McGowan is probably the teams best run blocker and Allen supposedly knows the playbook as well as anyone, so the changes all make sense.

These changes, along with more time for Tyler Higby who has actually been very good as a reserve, will hopefully jump start the MSU running attack which is absolutely critical to establishing any type of consistent offense.

As has been covered time and time again, there is no shortage of talent at running back. LJ Scott, Madre London and Gerald Holmes have all had flashes this year but simply haven’t had anywhere to go. The line hasn’t been good enough to run straight run plays and instead the offense has to rely on deception just to open up lanes. If this doesn’t change, neither will the results.

That brings us to the guy everyone is talking about, quarterback Tyler O’Connor. QB’s are always going to get more credit and blame than they deserve and in TO’C’s case he’s getting a lot of the latter. It’s the nature of the beast but also it’s not ALL his fault, as some would claim.

For every time he has taken a bad sack, misread a route or thrown into double coverage there has been a stuffed run, dropped pass or pressure in his face. Chris Vannini said it on the podcast this week, everything around him is falling apart. When that happens what is he supposed to do?

This week he faces a defensive backfield — led by safety Kai Nacua — that got absolutely torched by Toledo who, by the way, is not a bad team. I realize “it’s Toledo” but they’ve now dropped 52 on Fresno State and 53 on BYU. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

But Toledo isn’t on this field, BYU is. Unfortunately for them, that will possibly be without leading tackler Butch Pau’u who missed last week’s game, as well. Linebackers Fred Warner and Francis Bernard will have to pick things up in his stead more effectively than they did a week ago.

Don’t underestimate this BYU defense. As the graphic showed earlier, they have barely been on the wrong side of some low scoring games against quality opponents.

If MSU doesn’t show up with improved lines and solid play from their QB, they could be in trouble.

Special Teams

Arizona v BYU Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

For MSU, it’s pretty bad. Michael Geiger is terrible, the return teams seem uninterested in blocking and Jake Hartbarger (who has been great) is getting WAY too much burn.

The good news, if you want to call it that, is the coverage units are significantly better than a year ago and the punt returners are fielding the ball cleanly. And apparently Kevin Cronin read the column last week and decided kicking the ball out of bounds was a bad look. Thanks for your patronage, Kevin.

It will be interesting to see if Trishton Jackson and/or Justin Layne get the chance to return kicks after losing their redshirts. Both have the explosive ability to do so and to say the units could use a shot in the arm is being kind.

On the other side, BYU kicker Rhett Almond is 11/12 and coming off a game-winner against Toledo. Must be nice. The main kick returner, Aleva Hifo, has a 50 yarder to his name so something to watch for there.

If MSU plans on finding the inches again, special teams would be a great place to start (behind the lines, of course).

Bottom Line and Prediction

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Notre Dame Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

I’m dedicating this portion of the preview to what most fans want to talk about: the quarterback situation.

First, lets talk about the past. Spartan fans came into this season fat and happy, with damn good reason, and perhaps expectations got a bit out of whack in the process. I am as guilty as anyone in this regard.

But no one in their right mind should have come into ‘16 thinking O’Connor could cover up all of the issues Cook did a year ago. In fairness, not a lot of us expected the glaring issues to still exist but to lose all the ‘15 Spartans did and be expected to not miss a beat is unrealistic unless you’re Alabama or Ohio State. It happens to everyone else with regularity, we just haven’t been here in a while and forgot what it’s like. That’s OK.

The ‘15 team couldn’t run the ball effectively on early downs either, but Cook and Aaron Burbridge bailed them out of 3rd-and-longs time and time again. That’s what NFL-bound QB’s do. O’Connor is not that.

Secondly, the present. Right now, O’Connor is a passable quarterback who needs some help. He’s far from perfect but he isn’t getting much assistance.

I believe TO’C could lead a team with a great offensive line, sound running game and solid defense to a conference championship. You saw it against Notre Dame. Past MSU teams have had those things. Unfortunately, the team he is starting for has none of those at the moment, which is not his fault.

If this team can’t improve its line play, they stand no chance. O’Connor doesn’t have the arm or the experience to cover the holes Cook did and this team will be scrapping and clawing to get to a bowl game if they aren’t patched quickly. That is unless the Spartan defense of old shows up but it doesn’t look like that’s happening, either.

Finally, the future. As of the posting of this article, I believe the calls for O’Connor’s job are premature but not entirely out of line.

Last Sunday, in the near-immediate aftermath of the loss in Bloomington, I wrote that O’Connor was not the only problem, but he was a big one. I also wrote that the opportunity cost of not starting Brian Lewerke is too great to ignore.

At a certain point the latter of those two becomes unquestionably true but there is a decent amount of road to hoe before we reach that tipping point.

O’Connor deserves the chance to right the ship, even though he hasn’t instilled much confidence. By waiting four years for his chance to start he has earned the opportunity to control his own fate.

This week is his chance to start doing so.

If he plays well people will change their tune a bit. If he’s average the calls for Brian Lewerke will still come. If he’s subpar but the team wins the calls will get even louder. Even then I think Dantonio sticks with him.

The ONLY way a switch might happen is if O’Connor is considerably worse than he was against Wisconsin and MSU loses in convincing fashion at home again. At that point you don’t leave the staff many choices.

I don’t see that happening this week. I think TO’C turns in a solid performance and puts the QB controversy to bed, at least for another week.

The defense struggles to contain BYU’s rushing offense early but settles in with the second half return of McDowell. On the other side, the offensive line shake-up helps get the ground game going and LJ Scott finds the end zone twice.

MSU 35 - BYU 32