Football season officially starts in less than two months. Michigan State Spartans fans are notably excited, but many are wisely approaching this season with slightly lower expectations following a disappointing 7-6 season in 2018.
In 2019, Michigan State boasted a defense that ranked No. 1 in the nation against the run at just 77.9 yards allowed per game (more than 17 yards better than the next best team, Mississippi State). The Spartans also ranked 10th nationally in total defense, and eighth nationally in scoring defense, as well as second in defensive S&P+ rankings. With many of last year’s starters returning in 2019, there should be little doubt that the defensive unit will remain elite.
The offense, on the other hand, was downright awful. Quite frankly, the offensive struggles really took away from 2018’s historically good defense. This is a unit that ranked 125th out of 129th in scoring offense (18.7 points per game), 116th in total offense (342.1 yards per game) and 112th in S&P+ rankings. The rushing attack ranked just 114th in the NCAA, while the passing offense fared better, but still not good enough, at 77th. To put it mildly, the the offense was hard to watch last season.
It would actually be quite the feat to do worse in 2019, but it should be easy to improve upon these putrid numbers...one would hope. There were many contributing factors to MSU’s offensive struggles last year. There should be reason for cautious optimism in 2019. In no particular order, here are a few reasons why.
A healthy Brian Lewerke
So, Brian Lewerke’s 2018 is a season he would like to put behind him. In 11 games, he completed just 54 percent of his passes with 2,040 yards, eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions, but played the majority of the season with a serious shoulder injury. This injury happened relatively early in the season against Penn State (game six), and he seemed to be rushed back onto the field before he was ready. I know there are a lot of skeptics on Lewerke now, but have you ever tried throwing a football with a serious shoulder injury? Lewerke did not have to get surgery on his throwing shoulder, but has stated throughout the offseason that it is back to “100 percent.”
Remember back to 2017, where Lewerke revolutionized Michigan State’s pro-style offense by using his legs as a weapon (564 rushing yards, five touchdowns), while also throwing for nearly 2,800 yards, 20 touchdowns and just seven picks. He led MSU to a 10-3 record. This is the same guy who broke multiple records in 2017. He became the first Spartan to throw for 400 or more yards in back-to-back games. At the time, Lewerke was just the third Big Ten quarterback in the previous 20 seasons to accomplish such a feat (Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins joined that club last season). Those performances (445 yards against Northwestern, and 400 yards against Penn State), rank first, and tied for second, respectively, for single game performances in MSU history.
Lewerke still has accuracy issues, amongst other things, to work out, but if he gains his confidence back in 2019, he should be in for a much, much stronger campaign in 2019.
A healthy and more experienced offensive line, and healthy skill positions
In addition to the Lewerke, the Spartans were absolutely decimated by injuries in 2018. The offensive line was a revolving door, which either kept starters out of the lineup completely, or had them playing banged up. A lot of inexperienced players were forced into the lineup, and were unable to provide solid protection. The running game was especially awful, and this was a big reason why the team couldn’t move the ball. Fast forward to 2019, and the good news is that the returning unit — an expected lineup from left to right of Cole Chewins, Tyler Higby, Matt Allen, Kevin Jarvis and Jordan Reid — all got valuable experience last year (49 combined starts), and are now all upperclassmen. All of which should enter the season healthy. Five-star guard, and true freshman, Devontae Dobbs may very well earn a starting spot in fall camp as well, and though he will have growing pains, should be ready to contribute right away.
The skill position players will also have a chance at redemption as well. Last year, Lewerke, starting back LJ Scott, and starting wide receivers Felton Davis III, Darrell Stewart and Cody White, all missed time throughout the season. Younger guys who were able to come in and make an impact, such as Jalen Nailor and Cam Chambers, also were in and out of the lineup or playing hurt. Nailor, now a sophomore, and Chambers, now a junior, have a chance to have breakout seasons this year, with Stewart and white entrenched as the top two options.
The running back group will be interesting to watch, with Connor Heyward likely to lead the group in touches, while La’Darius Jefferson, Elijah Collins and true freshman Anthony Williams Jr. are likely to contribute. It will also be intriguing to see if MSU finally gets its tight ends involved, with Matt Dotson, Trenton Gillison and Noah Davis all returning.
New offensive coordinator
How big of an impact will Brad Salem make in his first year as offensive coordinator? He’ll take over for longtime play-caller Dave Warner. At the very least, I think we will no longer see jet sweeps to the short side of the field, but who knows? The team didn’t show us a lot in the spring game, as expected (don’t want to put that on film too early), but the new look offense is supposed to throw in more wrinkles and more modern offensive concepts, such as run-pass options, read options, etc. We won’t get a chance to see this new offense in action until Aug. 30 against Tulsa, but in a game the Spartans are expected to win handily, I wouldn’t expect the offense to show a whole lot of new concepts and play designs on film just yet, either.
Salem, who was quarterbacks coach for MSU for the past six seasons, and running backs coach for the three seasons prior to that (in addition to OC duties, he will also coach running backs this season), has to find innovative ways to move the ball down the field. While this is Salem’s first big time opportunity, he has head coaching experience at Augustana University (Division II), and he held the post of offensive coordinator there at his alma matter prior to that. He began his playing career as a quarterback for Northern Arizona in 1988, before transferring to Augustana as a wide receiver. He actually started his coaching career as a grad assistant at Michigan State. So, he has the needed experience to run an offense, but the jury will be out until fans and media alike see improvement, but we should expect to see it.
So, what do you think? Let us know in the comments section and vote in the poll:
Will the Michigan State offense improve in 2019?
This poll is closed
Yes, but only marginally
Yes, much improved
No, it will stay the same as 2018
No, it will be worse than 2018