Big Ten Preview: Now-healthy Sparty looks to re-enter conference title talk

Healthy is not a word many, if any, would use to describe Michigan State last season…well at least not a quarterback.

Starter Brian Lewerke battled a shoulder injury for much of the season, thrusting redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi into the mix. The battle continued throughout much of the season.

Injuries also hampered Michigan State in other facets as well. Senior receiver Felton Davis III tore his Achilles against Penn State, running back LJ Scott suffered an ankle injury against Arizona State that would eventually end his season. Another significant injury happened to punter Jake Hartbarger, who was lost for the season against Arizona State as well.

(Photo: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press)

Unfortunately, that was just the tip of the iceberg as the skill position injuries eventually doomed Sparty’s hopes of winning the Big Ten East and stumbled to a 7-5 regular season and an ugly 7-6 loss to Oregon in the Redbox Bowl.

However, with an offseason to get healthy, Michigan State feels they can return to compete with the Ohio State’s and the Michigan’s. Especially with a fully-healthy Brian Lewerke at quarterback.

Who They Lose

The Spartans lost their most talented runner and receiver from 2018 with the departure’s of running back LJ Scott and receiver Felton Davis III. Michigan State also loses their top tight end from last season in Matt Sokol.

Defensively, the Spartans took a bit of a hit in their secondary. Three-year starting linebacker Andrew Dowell graduated after amassing 260 career tackles. Michigan State also lost cornerback Justin Layne, who was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and safety Khari Willis, who was drafted in the 4th round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Who They Return/Gain

Michigan State returns 9 of 11 starters on offense from 2018, including quarterback Brian Lewerke. Leading rusher Connor Heyward also returns following a season where he amassed over 1,000 all purpose yards. The Spartans return their entire offensive line from 2018, as well as much as their receiving core.

(Photo: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press)

The Spartans defense also returns a lot of production from last season, including 8 of 11 starters as well. Returnees include the entire front four of Michigan State’s defensive line, leading-tackler Joe Bachie and linebacker/defensive end hybrid Kenny Willekes, who amassed an eye-popping 20.5 TFL in 2018.

Toughest Test

Playing in the Big Ten East is always a daunting task and Michigan State’s schedule reflects that with trips to Michigan and Ohio State, as well as my favorite for the Big Ten West in Northwestern. But, given recent history, Columbus has been a much harder place for Michigan State to win at than Ann Arbor has, and with a primetime ABC crowd, it’s going to be very tough to take down the Buckeyes.

The Ceiling

Brian Lewerke returns to his 2017 form and becomes a total offense machine. This allows the run game to open up and let Connor Heyward run wild. Michigan State’s defense continues their dominance, which could allow Sparty a return trip to Indianapolis come December.

Ceiling: 10-2, trip to B1G CCG, bowl game in Orlando

The Floor

Lewerke struggles to get his confidence back following an injury-riddled 2018. Another quarterback controversy ensues with backup Rocky Lombardi and it neuters the offense. This causes the defense can rise to the challenge, but lack of offensive firepower could doom Michigan State yet again.

The Floor: 7-5, return trip to San Francisco or Detroit

The Bottom Line

Michigan State has the opportunity to be a really good football team in 2019, but two things may stand in front of them: Health and the Big Ten East. If Sparty can stay healthy, half of the battle will likely be won, as they have the talent to compete in the East.

However, the East is unforgiving with the toughness of the opponents. Sparty needs to come ready to battle every week. They have the defense to do so, and if the offense can climb the ranks and follow suit, the road to Indianapolis may take an unexpected, yet welcomed detour through East Lansing.

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