Scope of the #15 Michigan State Spartans: Restoration Project Complete

LJ Scott breaks free in the Holiday for the Spartans. (Photo: Duffy Carpenter, Spartan Nation @DuffyCarpenter1)
LJ Scott breaks free in the Holiday for the Spartans. (Photo: Duffy Carpenter, Spartan Nation @DuffyCarpenter1)

Scope of the #15 Michigan State Spartans: Restoration Project Complete

Oh my, what a difference a year makes in major College Football. A year ago some wondered if Spartan Football would even qualify for a Bowl Game in 2017. Well, twelve days ago #15 MSU finished off another 10-win season with a Holiday Bowl blowout victory over the 18th ranked Washington State Cougars. As well as the Spartans had bounced back during their 9-3, “flip it,” regular season, the 2017 team had yet to play its best complete game heading into San Diego.

One quarter into that game the Spartans looked way too rusty for their best performance to suddenly break out. 45 minutes of football later, however, that’s exactly what happened as the Spartans were all over Washington State, hammering down the exclamation point on the season with a 25-point blowout victory that both teams knew could’ve been another score wider. That was the perfect punctuation mark to add on to the Spartans’ 2017 season.

By ending the year with their best performance, notching the biggest Bowl Game blowout in modern school history, Spartan Football showed the entire country that the major restoration project the program had gone through over the last twelve months was successfully completed. Michigan State Football not only restored itself as Big Ten contender in 2017, the program put itself back on the national map as one of those schools that will compete for championships and College Football Playoff berths as the decade comes to a close.

Before the Holiday Bowl, there wasn’t much of a doubt around the Spartan Nation that Spartan Football had returned to form because this young team had once again played into November with a chance to win a Big Ten Championship. That’s the path that every top team takes to earn a shot to play for the season’s biggest prizes. If a team isn’t playing games into November with a shot at their division (aside from independents like Notre Dame or BYU), that team is not going to play for championships in December or January. The seeds MSU planted to get back to November in Big Ten contention were first planted in the cozy-winter mornings a little more than a year ago.

In the Big Ten East, the best division in the sport these days, that path is more crowded. The other competitive teams in the division have a roster full of athletes too, and they’ll be getting after it all offseason long to give themselves a shot to play for big things next November too. There is no shortcut to competing for championships in this league. After living through the last twelve months the returning Spartans surely accept that challenge, and now must give this winter’s conditioning program the attention they know it requires.

As Spartan Football turns the page to 2018 they have a great opportunity to build off the experience gained in 2017. They have a collective feel for what it’s like to play on the biggest stages in the sport and should carry a serious hunger to go after the lofty goals that are possible in 2018. With so many young players returning with significant experience and another fine recruiting class set to arrive on campus next August, the 2018 Spartans should have a great shot at some very big things.

The biggest key to the Spartan Offense breaking out in 2018 is their game plan philosophy. As we discussed in November and the Holiday Bowl performance affirmed, this is a new era for the MSU Offense. Gone for good is the “run-first-stubborn” approach that limited the production and success of this unit for too long. Beginning at Northwestern, the Spartan Offense began to break free from the chains that led to an underperforming unit for nearly three seasons. The final three-quarters of the Holiday Bowl left so many around Spartan Nation excited for the future of the Offense, especially after we saw some traditional option plays mixed in.

After a very clunky first quarter, the Spartan Offense needed a spark. That spark largely came in the form of MSU finally running some traditional “option” plays with Brian Lewerke at the helm. Yes, a College Football team can run five to ten option plays a game without turning into Georgia Tech or Navy. When the Spartans did it against Ohio State in 2015 it gave them an opportunity to pull out the biggest road win of the Dantonio era. At the Holiday Bowl, MSU’s option plays opened up the WSU Defense and the Spartan Offense started to roll. That strategic innovation, mixing in some options against a better Defense, is something that can take the Spartan Offense to the next level over during the coming seasons.

The Spartans should not need to run many option plays at all against heavily overmatched opponents. They need that wrinkle against the better teams in the Big Ten, aka the ones you just can’t line up and run the ball successfully against, in order to open things up for the entire Offense to flourish. When that happens next fall we can expect to see a better and more explosive MSU Offense. Of course, Brian Lewerke will need to err on the side of sliding more often, as he was reminded against WSU, but that should come without too much trouble. As good as Lewerke was during 2017, if the Spartans can consistently take what an opposing Defense gives them on a regular basis, MSU can have a top end Offense in 2018. Sometimes that will mean throwing more on early downs to open up the run game, but more often it will mean working in some traditional option plays to loosen up an opposing Defense.

Another important step in the Spartans moving the ball better in 2018 is the ongoing development of the Offensive Line. That position group should be physically stronger in 2018 after a full on 4th Quarter winter conditioning program that is already taking shape. They need to be physically stronger to win more often in those essential first five seconds after the ball is snapped. Over the course of the 2017 season, we saw the youth of the Offensive Line begin to mature. Their struggles and progress served as a good reminder that there is no substitute for live game reps. There’s also no shortcut around putting in the time, hour after hour, to mold the type of physical specimen and mental tactician needed to compete and win the battle up front in the best division in the sport.

The biggest test of the line’s progress in 2018 should come when Ohio State comes to East Lansing on November 10th. Sure, their progress it will be displayed during October when MSU goes to Penn State and then hosts Michigan the next week, but the ultimate test will remain to measure up with the Buckeyes as long as Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio lead their respective programs. Let’s face it, Spartans versus Buckeyes is probably the best current rivalry in the Big Ten, if not the entire country. In order to beat the Buckeyes next fall, the Spartan Defense will also need to improve as well.

The heart of Spartan Football under Mark Dantonio has been the Spartan Dawg Defense. In 2016 that unit came unglued, often from the most surprising places. Yet, as they bottomed out in a bad loss at Maryland, Linebacker Joe Bachie took his first snaps in Green and White and the Defense actually started the long road back. Not long into the process came disturbing and surprising offseason news that cost the Defense some players they had been counting on. Aside from the off-field impact came a realization that some schematic adjustments were needed, and very hard grind through the offseason would be necessary for things to turn around in 2017.

After taking a hard and deep look at his football program Mark Dantonio realized a big realignment to the Defensive Coaching Staff had to be made. After that move and fantastic 4th Quarter program, the Spartans got into Spring Practice and began to see some good signs from the Defense. Dantonio and staff were probably holding on to quiet optimism that the unit would return to form by the end of Fall Camp after they got a feel for what the 2017 class might be able to do. Many in that class showed up early on campus and ended up making a major difference in the effort to flip 2016, 3-9 record. Now the Defense must cope with one of the biggest changes to the coaching staff during the Dantonio era.

Harlon Barnett was a cornerstone of the Spartan Defense after arriving as a relatively young assistant with Dantonio in late 2006. As Spartan Football blossomed, so did Barnett. First as a Defensive Backs mentor that groomed NFL caliber players, and even a couple 1st Round picks. Barnett also developed as an evaluator and recruiter of talent before rising to a Co-Coordinator level to call plays for a couple Defenses that were pretty impressive in two of the three years he had that role. Losing him to Florida State has to sting Michigan State a bit, but it is also a strong complement to the program. MSU will have to move on quickly but does enjoy a long list of fine applicants who want to join the staff of one of the strongest brand Defenses in the nation.

The Spartans know they cannot afford to make a mistake with this hire or the new “Tenth Assistant” slot that has yet to be filled. The last time MSU added a staff member to the Defense, Mark Snyder, it did not work out too well. Spartan Special Teams to a big step backward under his leadership and MSU Linebackers struggled to keep up to program standards under his lead. As we discussed earlier this fall, one of the moves that propelled the Spartans bounce back 2017 was realigning Snyder’s responsibilities within the Defense. MSU has too much momentum going into 2018 to let an ill-fitting hire trip them up this time. It’s extremely likely they’ll fill the open two coaching positions quite well, but there may still be times they will miss Coach Barnett. There’s so much returning for the Spartan Defense in 2018 as a whole that they should take steps forward next fall towards being one of the very best units in the country again.

Besides a Bachie in the middle to lead this unit forward, the Spartans have all kinds of returning talent on the back end that should improve next season. The Spartans’ back end is consistently in the spotlight as a position group because those players are so often put on an island to defend the pass, and are still counted on to step up to defend the run in spots too. The biggest key to the Spartan Defense improving in 2018, however, is all the way up front in the middle of the line.

The line of scrimmage is where the biggest games on the Spartans’ 2018 schedule will be won and lost. MSU did a good job of developing some “space eaters” in 2017 but it was a work in progress and that playing group was pretty thin to begin the year. That spot on the roster should be fully replenished and far more experienced to close out the decade. Those are the positions in the Defense that MSU needs to bring back up to a championship level more than any other. You don’t beat Ohio State and Urban Meyer as often as the Spartans have without having some serious muscle up front to cause a ruckus and disrupt opposing backfields. With Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams returning as Juniors to anchor those slots the interior of the MSU line is already on the way to becoming a position of strength again for the Spartans, but sustained progress will not just happen automatically. The offseason work the entire group of Nose Tackles and Defensive Tackles does this winter will show up in the heart of the Spartans 2018 schedule. If they have success deep into 2018, be sure to backfill some of the credit to the work they put in during these quiet months.

Perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise from the 2017 Defense was a revived MSU pass rush. Who could’ve imagined that walk-on Kenny Willekes would make so much noise and so many plays as just a Sophomore? Yes, the Spartan Nation staff may have told you about Willekes and what he was doing behind the scenes before the season began, but they play the games on Saturdays and Willekes emerged as a player the Big Ten will have to reckon with in 2018 and 2019. Don’t be surprised if Willekes gets double-teamed at times during 2018, which will open up opportunities for other swarming Spartans to affect the opposing Quarterback. Though the Defense lost players last offseason that were expected to make plays through the coming seasons, the 2017 and 2018 classes should quickly erase any sign of a thin roster on the Spartans’ defensive front. The other position groups on the Defense are already pretty well stocked so a return to top form up front should lead to even better days in the next couple years.

The same can be said for Spartan Special Teams, who completed their own notable turnaround in 2017. Credit MSU for going back to its “best practice” of sending out their best players for these important transitional plays. It showed up throughout the year across the entire unit whether it was athletes flying around on kick coverage or the Spartans figuring out a kick return lineup that they should have for the next three seasons. Special Teams is no longer an afterthought and should no longer become any kind of liability for Spartan Football. Expect big things from Spartan Special Teams in future years with all the talent and athletic ability MSU will send out on the field. As tight as the Big Ten East will be each year between now and the close out the decade, Special Teams could be the final difference between a team playing in a Big Ten Championship for a slot in the College Football Playoff and another left chewing on a would-ah-could-ah-should-ah result for many years to come.

When the final chapter closes on Mark Dantonio’s tenure as the Head Coach of Michigan State expect to look back to the 2017 season as the most pivotal of all. The 2017 recruiting class will one day be remembered as the “savior class” that Michigan State needed, arriving at just the right time. Joe Bachie and Brian Lewerke will be remembered for leading the way in putting in the hard work to pull MSU all the way back from the worst season of the Dantonio era to hang another double-digit winning, Bowl Champion season on the board. What happened this season not only put Spartan Football back on track to be part of the Big Ten and national conversations, it set up the second major run that Dantonio’s Spartans will have to chase a National Championship. As he said the day he was introduced as the Head Coach of Michigan State Football, those things are possible here.

The Spartans are stocked with young experience coming back for 2018, which is what top end programs need to compete at the highest level for an extended period of time. MSU already did that from 2013-2015, which means Dantonio and company have a bit of an edge on the dozens of other programs who have yet to string a stretch of great seasons together in a row. It is not easy to win at a high level for more than a couple seasons in a row, despite what we’ve seen lately from Clemson and Alabama. Those programs are the exception, and the ones the Spartans hope to compete with in coming years.

If the Michigan State Football can stay out of its own way during this offseason and put in the level of preparation they know is needed in order to compete in the most competitive division in College Football, they will have another shot to play for the Big Ten East next November. Spartan Football embraces that as the path to the big goals they’ve already set for 2018. They also know that the program is lined up well to chase big things 2018, 2019, and 2020, at least. It’s amazing how much how changed in a year for Spartan Football and pretty, pretty exciting to think where this program could be about a year from today.

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