Opponent Outlook: Michigan State still trying to right the ship

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

A lot has gone wrong for Michigan State since it beat the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium a year ago.

While Notre Dame’s season skidded into a 4-8 nightmare, the Spartans spiraled out of control too. A 3-9 season was only the start of a troubling stretch at Michigan State.

In the offseason, head coach Mark Dantonio dismissed four players — wide receiver Donnie Corley, defensive back Demetric Vance and defensive ends Josh King and Auston Robertson — who were charged with criminal sexual conduct in two separate cases. The investigation into one of those cases also led to Dantonio parting ways with Curtis Blackwell, the football program’s director of college advancement and performance, following a suspension.

The start of the season has allowed the Spartans to at least distance themselves from the bleakness on the field. Wins against Bowling Green (35-10) and Western Michigan (28-14) put Michigan State at 2-0 with a bye week to prepare for Notre Dame.

But how much have the Spartans truly changed since last season? We caught up with Matt Charboneau from The Detroit News for a better understanding of Michigan State.

• Michigan State won its first two games comfortably, but the wins came against MAC opponents. Have you been able to learn anything substantial about the Spartans with that start?

Charboneau: “The opener against Bowling Green was a standard, knock the rust off type a game, especially for a Michigan State team that had a long offseason — on and off the field. More can probably be taken from the victory over Western Michigan. The Broncos are, indeed, a MAC team, but they were coming off a 13-1 season that included an appearance in the Cotton Bowl and in the season-opener pushed Southern Cal to the limit, running for 263 yards.

“What was clear after that game is that Michigan State is a solid run-stopping defense with a young quarterback showing the ability to beat teams with his feet while taking advantage of a young, talented receiving corps. No one is declaring the Spartans a Big Ten contender yet, but what we have learned is that there’s enough young talent to believe they might be by next season.”

 Notre Dame followed up its 4-8 season with a significant reworking of its coaching staff. But Michigan State’s 3-9 record didn’t spawn a coaching makeover. What kind of changes have the Spartans tried to make internally to course-correct?

Charboneau: “The simple answer is they haven’t changed a whole lot when it comes to the staff and their responsibilities. Plenty outside the program wanted to see Mark Dantonio make changes, but that’s simply not his style — right or wrong. He did move linebackers coach Mark Snyder to take over the defensive ends and has co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel once again overseeing the linebackers. However, that was more about keeping up with evolving offenses in college football and the pressure it puts on ends, in particular.

“Most of the offseason work was focused on chemistry in the locker room and recapturing the culture that made the Spartans a perennial Big Ten contender.”

• Quarterback Brian Lewerke leads Michigan State with 150 rushing yards through the first two games. Has his ability to run been an unexpected addition to the offense? And will it be an important part of the offense moving forward?

Charboneau: “It has been expected in the sense Lewerke is a much better runner than Connor Cook or Kirk Cousins before him. Whether they expected him to be this much of a factor is unlikely, but there’s no doubt the staff had a plan to use Lewerke more on designed runs than they have any quarterback before him. While he’s been good, he’s proven he’s just as adept at leaving the pocket when there’s no receiver open and making something out of nothing.

“That said, the Spartans don’t want Lewerke to be their leading rusher and they’ll need more consistent results from the three-back attack of LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London.”

 Notre Dame’s offensive line has been both great and suspect at times this season. Can Michigan State’s defensive line provide penetration despite losing standout defensive tackle Malik McDowell to the NFL?

Charboneau: “Malik McDowell’s subpar junior season allowed the likes of Raequan Williams and Mike Pansiuk to get plenty of work late last season and now, both sophomores are playing well early and creating problems for opposing offenses. The Spartans also have depth as redshirt freshman Naquan Jones has played well, as has junior Gerald Owens, a former running back.

“As good as they’ve been in the middle, the real question is on the edge where MSU starts a pair of former walk-ons. They’ve managed five sacks through two games (nearly half of last season’s total of 11) but whether that’s a true signal the pass rush has returned remains to be seen.”

• How much will Michigan State benefit from having a bye week before playing Notre Dame? Did this team need the extra time to prepare for the Irish or would the Spartans have been better off trying to keep their momentum rolling from the previous weeks?

Charboneau: “It’s always hard to tell with a young team, and there’s no doubt, Michigan State is a young team. Only one senior starts on each side of the ball and only a handful see meaningful snaps while 10 true freshmen have already played and nine redshirt freshmen saw their first action in the opener.

“Relatively healthy, they didn’t need the week off to heal, so I’m leaning toward continuing to play might have been a better option for a team that was feeling confident, something that disappeared not long after last season’s win at Notre Dame.”

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 |Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke, left, and coach Mark Dantonio react following Lewerke's 61-yard touchdown against Western Michigan. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)