There is no one change that Michigan State can make that will make them revert from a 3-9 team back to one that competes for the Big Ten title. But there are two very clear areas where improvement could make a big difference for the Spartans.
Over the last decade, Michigan State was at its best when it had an attacking defense that forced turnovers and a quarterback that was deadly anywhere near the end zone.
While it’s unfair to compare Connor Cook to Tyler O’Connor, or Brian Lewerke for that matter, comparing the quarterbacks’ numbers shows a clear area where the Spartans need success. In 2015, Cook threw for 24 touchdowns, a year later three MSU quarterbacks combined for only 19 passing touchdowns.
When the Spartans entered the red zone, teams were able to compress their defense and eliminate the passing attack, putting even more pressure on running back LJ Scott. If Lewerke is man taking snaps for MSU, he doesn’t need to be an All-Big Ten quarterback, but being able to pass in the red zone will re-open the Spartans offense.
This pressure isn’t exclusively resting on Lewerke. The MSU receivers need to outperform expectations. The Spartans’ receiving squad is extremely young, only one senior in the group – Brock Makaric, who hasn’t seen any game time.
All told, MSU receivers are returning just 22 receptions, 318 yards and 1 touchdown. Dantonio has been known to look to young receivers to play big roles, as will be the case this year with true freshman Hunter Rison and Cody White likely taking big roles.
so Hunter Rison can run a route pic.twitter.com/aBCe6C0e7J— Zach Berridge (@ZachBerridge) July 31, 2017
“We've got guys coming," Dantonio said to Mlive. "They're young, they're in their second or their third year. They're young players, but they've got talent, they're talented guys."
Just like on offense, the MSU defense was sorely missing the big play in 2016. Despite the numbers, there was plenty of talent on last year’s MSU defense, but that didn’t translate to the same number of turnovers the unit had come to expect over the last few years.
In 2015, the MSU defense forced on average two turnovers a game and in 2014 that number was even higher, averaging 2.6 turnovers. This past season, the defense only created 1.1 turnovers a game.
The Spartans secondary took the brunt of the blame on defense, but both interceptions and forced fumbles dropped last year. Like the receivers, if MSU is going to improve their turnover numbers, they will have to do it with a big group of unheralded players.
Unfortunately, for both sides of the ball, the Spartans problems have a chicken and the egg aspect to them. More turnovers would create more options for MSU to put up passing numbers. More scoring would force opposing offenses to take bigger risks and open up for more turnover possibilities.
There are a lot of reasons why a season can go right or wrong. But passing touchdowns and defensive turnovers will be a litmus test for this year’s team.