Know Thy Enemy is a weekly Q&A where the perspective changes, from the eyes of the Spartans to the eyes of Michigan State football’s next opponent. The State News asks the opposing team's student newspaper a few questions to see football through a different lens.
Utah State football went 6-7 last season and lost 26-20 in overtime to New Mexico State in the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona.
And Friday’s matchup against Michigan State football at Spartan Stadium will be the first time the two programs will meet on the football field.
Editor's note: This Q&A was slightly edited for clarification purposes.
Q: Both Utah State and MSU are coming back with a lot of veterans — Utah State with 18 and MSU, 19. How do you assess this team going into 2018?
They not only return a lot of starters, but they also bring in several junior college transfers and graduate transfers from other programs that have broken into starting roles. And so there’s a lot of experience on this Utah State team. I think that the hopes are really high for this team, especially with the schedule that they have — they avoid some of the tougher teams in the Mountain West Conference. Just a lot of good things are going Utah State’s way right now.
Q: Sophomore quarterback Jordan Love took over (as the starter) about halfway through the season in 2017. How have you seen him progress as the season went on and from what you’ve seen during the spring and practices so far?
So Jordan Love came in and he played his first game against Wyoming — well, his first meaningful time — and threw three interceptions in that game and still earned the starting job because he made so many good passes and reads. From there the offense really just took a different form. The downfield pass opened up, all of sudden we had all these 100-yard rushers. And the coaches are very, very complimentary of when he’s been announced, I mean he’s the man expected to start the entire offseason, so he’s kind of had that to lean back on. And you can tell, while he still needs to gain a little bit of consistency, he’s grown as a leader and he’s a much better passer than he was last season.
Q: Utah State kind of has what I call a trifecta between redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jordan Nathan, senior wide receiver Ron’Quavion Tarver and redshirt junior tight end Dax Raymond. So, could you just talk about that trifecta and how they fit into Utah State’s offense?
Yeah, those three are fantastic. I mean Ron’Quavion Tarver, he’s just been dominant. And it seems like even though he’s the top receiver, he still gets almost underused because, you throw it in his direction, he’ll catch it. Jordan Nathan … really caught a lot of teams off guard. I don’t think they were expecting him to come out and be so speedy. And then Dax Raymond, I think he’s an NFL tight end. I mean he’s got the size, he’s got the speed and he’s grown a lot from last season.
And then the thing that’s gonna make Utah State tough this year offensively, is, then they added in (graduate wide receiver) Jalen Greene, who's a transfer from USC, and they’ve added in … (junior wide receiver) Devin Heckstall. He’s 6-foot-5, 205 pounds, he’s from junior college. So they’ve got a lot of options through the air.
Q: Going on the defensive side, Utah State ranked 18th in the country in pass defense, but in terms of rush defense, ranked towards the bottom of college football. So how does this Utah State defense work? Is it a 3-4 or 4-3?
They usually do a 3-3-5 look. The rush defense was really inconsistent last year, and that’s in part because they played a lot of triple option teams with Air Force and UNLV and New Mexico. So that was part of it. But the front seven has come back quite a bit, every member of the front seven, and add in a TCU tranfser (redshirt junior linebacker) Tipa Galea'i as well as an Oklahoma State transfer, (redshirt junior defensive end) Fua Leilua. So the front seven should be quite a bit better. The pass defense was good, but they also lose the top two players back there, Dallin Leavitt and Jalen Davis — they’re both on NFL squads now. So I think they’ll rely a lot on forcing turnovers like they did last season.
Q: So you guys have a Lou Groza Award preseason watchlist nominee in redshirt junior kicker Dominik Eberle. How has he kind of a special teams weapon?
Dominik Eberle is a very special player. He had just a phenomenal regular season last season. You mentioned it, he was one of three finalists for the Groza Award. And then in the bowl game, he came out - he had food poisoning - and missed four kicks, which was uncharacteristic after he's only missed two all season. But just having that ability to get points from the 35 to 40-yard line and knowing you have a consistent kicker like that, it’s really big for this team. The special teams as a whole at Utah State is in a better spot then I could ever remember it being right now.
Q: Who’s a player that both Utah State fans and Michigan State fans should look out for?
I’m gonna give you two. I would say one would be a running back named Darwin Thompson. Darwin, he kind of worked his way up the depth chart and I expect he’s gonna be a starter and take the majority of the runs (reps) for Utah State. He’s a junior college guy, so this is his first year at Utah State and was an All-American in junior college (at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in 2017). But he led the nation in all-purpose yards and second in yards per carry — he averaged like 7.5 yards per carry in junior college. I think he’s gonna have a big season.
Then on the defensive end, I would go with Tipa Galea'i. I mentioned him already, but he’s a TCU transfer. I mean he would be a starter there this season and probably be one of the key parts of their defense, but he had to transfer for personal reasons. And so I think he’s gonna come and have a huge impact, especially when it comes to getting to the quarterback. So I’d really watch out for Tipa Galea'i.
Q: Game prediction: Who wins, score and why?
So I think Michigan State’s gonna really try to run the ball down the throat of the Utah State defense. The Utah State defense struggled pretty bad stopping the run last season, as you talked about. I just think Michigan State will ground-and-pound the ball. On the other side, Utah State should be able to get some points on the board, but there’s no way they’ll be able to keep up. They’ve hung tight in a lot of games like a game against Auburn (in 2011), a game against Wisconsin a few years ago (2012). But I just don’t see it happening in this one.
My prediction would be 36-17 in Michigan State’s favor. Probably pretty close in the first half, but Michigan State will pull away in the second half, especially with the run game.