Coming off a three-win 2016 campaign, Michigan State has been a pleasant surprise to many this year.
The No. 24 Spartans are 6-2 with a 4-1 Big Ten record. They beat Michigan in Ann Arbor, and their lone losses came at Notre Dame — now No. 3 in the country — and in overtime at Northwestern.
To help break down Michigan State, we caught up with Spartans beat writer Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News for this week’s “Ask the beat writer” Q&A.
Q: It’s safe to say Michigan State is in a better spot than many expected before the season. I know the Michigan win was huge, but how did the Spartans get here? And is it more likely that they finish with 7 or 9 regular season wins?
A: The better question might be, how did last season happen? The Spartans had just finished a three-year stretch going 36-5, winning two Big Ten championships and reaching the College Football Playoff in 2015. It capped five seasons out of six with 11 wins or more, and it hardly appeared like a program on the brink of plummeting the way it did. However, there were key losses to the NFL that destroyed the chemistry in the locker room, which didn’t help once Michigan State lost a few tight games and adversity set in. That’s changed dramatically this season as chemistry and a family atmosphere was emphasized throughout the offseason. That will only take you so far, and the big reason this team is winning is because the defense is way ahead of schedule in the Mark Dantonio rebuild. They’re young, but they’re producing, looking a lot like the defenses of former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. That unit is keeping MSU in games as the offense seeks consistency.
Q: Let’s look back at Saturday’s overtime loss to Northwestern. Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson had a field day, completing 33 of 48 passes for 356 yards and two touchdowns. What was up with Sparty’s defense, and how much of a problem will the secondary be against a guy like Trace McSorley?
A: The Spartans gave up plenty of yards in regulation thanks to Northwestern’s use of short crossing routes that MSU never adjusted to. However, the defense did a good job limiting points … right up until overtime when they couldn’t make a play to get off the field. So, the numbers for Thorson were good, but if the MSU offense doesn’t shoot itself in the foot on numerous occasions, the game probably doesn’t go to overtime. That said, MSU didn’t pressure the passer like it has most of the season and Thorson took advantage. With McSorley having the added element of being able to run the ball, that will make things even tougher on the Michigan State defense.
Q: What do you make of Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke? The kid seems talented, but at least statistically, this year has been weird for him on a game-by-game basis.
A: The talent is there, for sure. The sophomore can make all the throws and can beat teams with his feet, as well. However, like most young quarterbacks, Lewerke is struggling to find consistency. It didn’t help that back-to-back games against Michigan and Minnesota were played in downpours, but with the running game struggling, MSU needs Lewerke to be a difference-maker. He was that for most of the game against Northwestern, but even with the big numbers — 445 yards and four touchdowns — he missed three deep balls when the receiver had gotten behind the defense. All three could have changed the game, but to this point, consistent accuracy down the field is where Lewerke is lacking.
Q: Who’s an unsung hero on this Spartans team? Maybe a guy who’s not as known to the casual college football fan who’ll play a significant role on Saturday.
A: There’s a few options here, but I’m gonna go with cornerback Josiah Scott. He’s unsung in the fact he’s a true freshman and people are just starting to figure out who this guy is. He enrolled early at MSU and was quickly drawing comparisons to former Thorpe Award winner Darqueze Dennard. He’s not big, only about 6-foot on his best day, but he is an outstanding cover corner with one interception and six pass breakups. He and sophomore Justin Layne are allowing the Spartans to play the aggressive style of defense they’ve played in the past.
Q: There’ll probably be fewer Penn State fans traveling to this one than last week at Ohio State, but I’ll ask the same final question I did then. Any suggestions or go-to spots for food and a beverage or two in East Lansing or Detroit?
A: If any Penn State fans happen to be in Detroit, a budding restaurant scene is at the center of the city’s revival. However, considering East Lansing is an hour-and-a-half away, it might not be that convenient. So, you’re left with the Lansing area. While it’s not exactly a hotbed, there are some great places. And considering it’s a noon game, breakfast is probably in order. If there’s one place to go it’s Golden Harvest. It’s in the Old Town area of downtown Lansing, Michigan’s capital city. You’ll wait for a while, but you can’t beat the breakfast. Trust me. Do it.