Going into the 2018 season, Michigan State football had high expectations.
The Spartans were ranked No. 11 in the AP Top 25 Writer’s preseason poll, with media and fans considering them a dark-horse candidate for the College Football Playoffs.
They were also led by underdog candidate for the Heisman, quarterback Brian Lewerke, who turned MSU around from 3-9 in 2016 to 10-3 in 2017.
In 2017, Lewerke threw 2,793 yards for 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while running 124 times for 559 yards and five touchdowns. He became the first quarterback in program history to throw 400-plus yards in back-to-back games, among other accolades.
The team had 19 returning starters — 10 on offense and nine on defense.
What transpired instead was a 7-6 season hobbled by injuries and an inept offense, with losses to rivals Michigan and Ohio State, games in which the Spartans scored a combined 13 points. Ironically, the season culminated in a 7-6 loss to Oregon (9-4) in the Redbox Bowl on New Year’s Eve at Levi’s Stadium. The season didn’t meet the standards of MSU, according to linebacker Joe Bachie.
“Quite frankly, we’re 7-6 — it’s not good enough,” the junior captain said. “It’s not our standard here.”
Surplus of injuries stop offensive rhythm
After a 38-point output in the season-opener against Utah State, MSU would score 30-plus points twice more in the next three games — a 35-21 win at Indiana, and a 31-20 win against Central Michigan.
The Spartans had momentum.
But they faltered, especially in the final four games. MSU scored six points each in three of those games, including the loss against Oregon, with the lone exception being a 14-10 win over Rutgers on Nov. 24.
Because of the offense’s constant injuries, it ranked in the bottom-15 in the country in scoring (tied for 125th with 18.7 points per game) along with total yardage (116th with 342.1 yards per game).
“At the beginning the game you try to suppress (your frustration with not scoring), but as the game goes on, it builds up,” said Lewerke, who went 22-of-40 for 172 yards and an interception in the Redbox Bowl, while running a season-high 16 times for 63 yards. “I’m sure everybody on the offense feels bad for the defensive guys. They played a hell of a game.”
In that four-game span, the Spartans had either a beat-up Lewerke or backup Rocky Lombardi at quarterback because of an unspecified right-shoulder injury Lewerke suffered against Penn State Oct. 13.
Wide receiver Felton Davis III tore his left Achilles against the Wolverines Oct. 20, ending his senior year, and running back L.J. Scott played sparingly after the Utah State win, because of an unspecified right ankle injury suffered at Arizona State Sept. 8.
Just losing those two key players, MSU coach Mark Dantonio said, can change how a defense plays against the offense.
“As soon as Felton Davis is not in, then the coverage gets tilted a little bit more towards Cody White. (It) makes it more difficult for the other players,” Dantonio said. “It is what it is.”
White himself suffered a broken left hand against the Chippewas which put him out for all of October, and wideout Darrell Stewart Jr. also missed a couple games with an unspecified ankle injury.
The offensive line was injured for much of the season. Senior offensive guard David Beedle suffered a left-arm injury against Northwestern Oct. 6, and did not play for the rest of the season. Sophomore guard Kevin Jarvis suffered a unspecified leg injury against Indiana that kept him out four of the next five games.
In the first game of the season against Utah State, starting left tackle Cole Chewins was limited because of a unspecified leg injury suffered in the preseason.
Even the punters were affected, as fifth-year senior Jake Hartbarger was out for the season after suffering a left leg bone bruise against Arizona State, and teammate Tyler Hunt tore a knee ligament during practice before the Spartans faced Purdue Oct. 27.
“When you lose your quarterback for five or six games that accounts for 3,000-plus yards, or your tailback that accounts for a 1,000 or your wide receiver that accounts for 800, that’s a lot of production lost,” Dantonio said. “You’re trying to simulate that, trying to give other people opportunities, but it’s not the same. There’s a foundation that’s built.”
Most of that foundation was back for the Redbox Bowl, namely Lewerke, Scott, White, Stewart, Chewins and Jarvis and it produced a mere seven points — even with a new, more up-tempo offensive scheme implemented.
“Story of the season I guess you could say,” said White, who had six receptions for a team-high 64 yards against the Ducks. “We came here with a new scheme, we were on it the whole time up to the game, feeling good about it. And it just didn’t work out today.”
A stout defense
While the offense struggled mightily throughout the season, MSU’s defense carried its weight.
The Spartans were the best run defense in the country, limiting teams to 77.9 yards per game, and were No. 10 in total yards allowed with 303.2 yards per game and No. 8 in points allowed with 17.2 per game.
The defense featured eight players named to All-Big Ten teams or earning honorable mentions.
Kicker Matt Coghlin also earned first-team All-Big Ten by the media and third team by coaches, after hitting 18-of-22 field goals, including a career-long 49 yards against Utah State, and converting 25 extra point attempts.
This all was in contrast to how MSU’s offense. Davis was the only player to be awarded — an honorable mention by the coaches and media.
“It’s frustrating for us, but it has to be more frustrating for them,” said defensive tackle Raequan Williams, who had four total tackles and .5 sacks Dec. 31, 2018. “You just gotta come work and get better.”
The stout defense was on display against Oregon, even when MSU lost All-American defensive end Kenny Willekes to a broken left fibula the third quarter. Oregon’s 25th-ranked scoring offense only scored seven points on 203 total yards, with just 37 on the ground.
“For the most part, we set a lot of goals and we were able to reach those this season, defensively,” senior safety Khari Willis said. “But, we’re still trying to be better, and so we’re trying to put ourselves in the best position to win, and it was an example (during the Redbox Bowl).”
The example, Willis said was Oregon’s touchdown drive when quarterback Justin Herbert tossed it 28 yards to wide receiver Dillon Mitchell — the Redbox Bowl’s outstanding offensive player of the game — to give the Ducks a 7-6 lead with 11:19 left in the game.
The defense did most of their work this season with cornerback Josiah Scott missing after he tore his left meniscus before preseason camp.
Josiah came back against Maryland Nov. 3, and played MSU’s last five games of the season, deciding to forego a possible redshirt and face Oregon’s Herbert and Mitchell, which earned him the Redbox Bowl’s outstanding defensive player of the game.
With Willis’ last game as a Spartan, Josiah Scott said it’s “gonna be tough” not having Willis around in East Lansing, as the two hangout outside of football “all the time.”
“(Willis is) a once in a lifetime guy that you get to be around,” said Josiah, who had three total tackles and four pass breakups against Oregon. “I’ll be trying to replace him, because I’m one of his really close friends, and he was just telling me in the locker room, ‘This is your team now. I’m gonna hand it down to you, and you know what to do.’”
For MSU, Josiah said, it’s a “next-man up mentality.”
“We started to get the other guys more involved,” Josiah said. “It’s not much drop off from our ones to twos, twos to threes.”
Regrouping for 2019
Even with the high preseason expectations and a close bowl game loss to the Ducks, Bachie said entering this offseason is nothing compared to previous ones.
He came in as a freshman in 2016 expecting to go to a high-level bowl game, but went 3-9 instead, with four players kicked off the team for sexual misconduct and assault.
“We went through an offseason that quite honestly was hell,” Bachie said. “It was terrible. And it brought us together.”
It happened again in 2017. After the Spartans went 10-3. ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” reported a sexual assault culture within Dantonio’s program in January 2018, with an NCAA investigation clearing the program the following August.
Despite this, Bachie said the Spartans had the right mindset going into preseason camp and the season-opener against Utah State. With it, Bachie said MSU’s going to bring the same mentality it always has in trying to win next year.
“We’re going to attack it the same way, whether we were 3-9 or 12-0,” said Bachie, who had a team-high eight total tackles against Oregon. “We’ll get things fixed in the offseason, let everybody heal up a little bit and we’ll be ready to go.”
Helping bring that mindset back are 15 returning starters — seven on offense and eight on defense. Willis, Davis, L.J. Scott, Beedle, linebacker Andrew Dowell and tight end Matt Sokol all leave, and junior cornerback Justin Layne enters the NFL Draft, skipping his senior year.
Offensively, Lewerke said, it’s obvious — they need to improve.
“It’s picking up the slack from where we lacked last year,” Lewerke said. “Whatever needs to change, we’re going to make sure it’s going to get done. And whenever the offseason starts, whether it’s winter conditioning or whatever, we’re going to make sure we do that.”
For Josiah Scott, that process started as soon as MSU fell to Oregon.
“Next year starts today, in my opinion,” Josiah Scott said. “Oregon is done. It’s time to move on to bigger and better things.”
But, when looking back at 2018, Dantonio said this year’s team, despite its faults and injuries, is a team that “played extremely hard,” stayed competitive in every game and “had great chemistry.”
“(I’m) very proud of our football team, and I’m proud of the chemistry and I’m proud in the way they’ve handled themselves,” Dantonio said. “Still a 7-6 game, and like I said earlier, some people celebrate that. We’re just not at that point right now, in terms of what we’ve been able to accomplish in the past, so 7-6 is a little bit of a downer.
“But, we’ll rise back up.”