The Michigan State football team is reeling coming off of two blowout losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin before entering this week's bye week. Sitting at 4-3, a shot at playing in the Big Ten Championship Game seems unrealistic. But, with five games left, there is still enough time to turn what's quickly turning into a disappointing season into a successful year.
The Spartans host No. 7 Penn State next Saturday before going on their second bye week. Then, Michigan State hosts Illinois before traveling to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan. The Spartans close the year out with a trip to Rutgers before hosting Maryland on senior day. Most of those games are winnable, and should give MSU a shot to not only become bowl eligible, but maybe play in a Florida postseason game. But first, that starts with turning things around during the off-week.
The State News will take a look at the highs and lows through Michigan State's seven games this season, which one can use as storylines to keep an eye on as the season rolls into the final month.
Breakout Defensive Player
Considerations: LB Antjuan Simmons, DE Jacub Panasiuk, S Xavier Henderson
WINNER: Antjuan Simmons
In his first season starting at outside linebacker, Simmons has come on to the scene in an absolute flurry. The junior from Ann Arbor took over for Andrew Dowell, who graduated after last season, and hasn't missed a beat since entering MSU's starting lineup.
Simmons ranks in the top 50 in the nation in tackles for loss with nine tackles for loss this season. He's racked up 50 tackles in MSU's seven games, 26 of which were solo, and added an interception in the Spartans' 51-17 win against Western Michigan in Week 2. He has consistently shot into opposing offense's backfields, with his signature play coming on a fourth down stop against Indiana, where Simmons busted a jet sweep attempt for a 7-yard loss.
With Joe Bachie in the middle and Tyriq Thompson on the other side having highly regarded seasons as well, the Spartans have one of the best linebacker groups in the Big Ten. And with Simmons being the youngest of trio, he gets the nod for the MSU defense's breakout player.
Best Game of the Year
Considerations: vs Western Michigan, vs. Arizona State, vs. Tulsa
WINNER: Western Michigan
In terms of craziness, the Arizona State game would win this award by a landslide. But, we'll interpret the best game of the season for Michigan State. And in that case, it will be given to its 50-plus-point output against Western Michigan back in September.
Michigan State busted out its new alternate lime jerseys for this one and didn't disappoint in their debut. In the Spartans' most productive game this season in terms of points, everything came together: The run game, the passing game, everything.
The Spartans opened the game with 21 points in the first quarter, including touchdowns from Matt Dotson, Darrell Stewart Jr. and former MSU running back La'Darius Jefferson. Cody White added a touchdown in the second quarter and Matt Coghlin made a 38-yard field goal before halftime to give the Spartans a 31-7 lead at the break.
Coghlin added two more field goals in the second half, while Jefferson and Alante Thomas each found the end zone to help lead MSU to a dominant 51-17 win.
Fifth-year quarterback Brian Lewerke threw for over 300 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, and in his first collegiate start, Elijah Collins rushed for 192 yards on 17 carries. This game was easily the peak of Michigan State's offense this season, and they have yet to get back to that level in the five games played since.
Best Defensive Lineman
Considerations: DT Raequan Williams, DT Jacub Panasiuk, DE Kenny Willekes
WINNER: Kenny Willekes
Williams has been a dominant force inside, while Panasiuk has emerged on the opposite side of Willekes. But, we will go with the senior defensive end who leads the Spartan defense with four sacks this season.
Willekes returned to East Lansing for his senior year after breaking his leg in Michigan State's loss to Oregon in last season's Redbox Bowl. He began this season on fire with seven tackles, 1.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries in Michigan State's win against Tulsa.
Since then, he's added 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks, however, he's been held sack-less since the Spartans' 10-7 loss to Arizona State. Willekes has benefitted from the immense amount of talent across Michigan State's defensive line, that consistently leaves him in one-on-one situations with offensive tackles. And in his senior season, he is definitely taking advantage of that.