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Michigan State football: Lows outnumber highs in 2019

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State entered the season with high hopes, expecting to contend in the Big Ten East with a veteran team that looked like it had the pieces to make a run at getting back to the conference championship game.

However, it didn’t take long before it was clear the offense hadn’t changed much and the defense was experiencing a sudden drop-off. The results, as it turned out, weren’t surprising as the Spartans failed to score with any consistency, gave up far too many big plays on defense and now find themselves waiting to find out which lower-tier bowl they will play in.

Mark Dantonio's decision to anoint Detroit U-D Jesuit product Elijah Collins (24) as Michigan State's starting running back was the coach's best move of the season.

With that, we’ll take a look at some of the highs and lows from 2019.

Best unit

While the defense didn’t live up to preseason billing and allowed far too many big plays, it was still solid up front thanks, in large part, to the play of senior defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk. Williams, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors, and Panasiuk helped Michigan State remain strong against the run as the Spartans allowed 103.5 yards a game, good for 12th in the nation. The Spartans also finished with 36 sacks, fifth-best in the Big Ten behind nine from fifth-year senior end Kenny Willekes, who earned first-team all-conference honors for the second straight season. Williams and junior end Jacub Panasiuk also had five sacks each.

Worst unit

Injuries played a significant role, but the offensive line was up and down all season. The Spartans used seven different starting lineups while four different players started at left tackle. It was that position that was the most fluid as a back injury kept fifth-year senior Cole Chewins out all season and his replacement in the opener, junior Kevin Jarvis, played only three games before getting hurt. By the end of the season a pair of true freshmen – center Nick Samac and left guard J.D. Duplain – were starting while freshman left tackle Devontae Dobbs started once. It led to a unit that lacked cohesiveness as MSU ranked among the worst in the nation in total offense and rushing offense.

Best win

It hardly seemed like it at the time, but the 40-31 victory at home over Indiana qualifies here as the Hoosiers went on to win eight games for the first time since 1993. A back-and-forth battle just five games into the season was tipped in Michigan State’s favor by a Matt Coghlin field goal in the final seconds while the final margin was skewed when the Spartans scored a special teams touchdown as time ran out. The offensive numbers were impressive that day as Brian Lewerke threw for 300 yards but the defense showed its first signs of giving up too many big plays.

Worst loss

There are plenty of candidates for this one, but we’ll have to go with the 10-7 loss in Week 3 to Arizona State simply because it set an ominous tone for the rest of the season. The blowouts to Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan were bad and the fourth-quarter collapse to Illinois was brutal, but the die was cast in Week 3 when the offense managed a single touchdown despite gaining more than 400 total yards and the defense couldn’t get off the field in final minutes, capping its own deflating finish by allowing ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels to run for 15 yards on fourth-and-13 on the winning drive.

Most underrated player

Michigan State linebacker Antjuan Simmons

He only gained honorable mention All-Big Ten honors, but junior linebacker Antjuan Simmons was arguably the most important piece of the Michigan State defense, including his ability to switch to the middle for a short time after Joe Bachie’s suspension. Simmons led the team with 81 tackles while his 15 tackles for loss were also the most on the team. Simmons also stuffed the stat sheet with 3.5 sacks, an interception, three pass breakups a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He’s emerged as a leader on defense and will be counted on heavily next season as the defense gets much younger.

Most valuable player

Just looking at the numbers, it’s hard to argue that fifth-year senior defensive end Kenny Willekes deserves this honor. There were some other candidates, namely Raequan Williams and cornerback Josiah Scott on defense as well as wide receiver Cody White on offense, but Willekes finished with 14.5 tackles for loss including nine sacks while earning first-team All-Big Ten honors for the second straight season. In addition to his 69 tackles, Willekes had 16 quarterback hurries, forced a fumble and recovered two as he bounced back after suffering a broken leg in last year’s Redbox Bowl.

Most improved player

After carrying the ball just two times in three games as a true freshman in 2018, it was unclear what running back Elijah Collins would bring to the table this season. But after running for 192 yards in Week 2 against Western Michigan, Collins had locked down the starting job. He finished the regular season with 892 yards on 201 carries for an average of 4.4 yards per attempt while also scoring five touchdowns. They aren’t eye-popping numbers, but considering Michigan State’s leading rusher in 2018 gained just 529 yards, it was a marked improvement.

Best coaching decision

The decision to go with Collins in week two was probably the best move made all year by Mark Dantonio and his staff. It led directly to the transfer of junior Connor Heyward and sophomore La’Darius Jefferson, two players that could still be bringing value to the offense, but it was the necessary move for the future of ground attack. Depth is an issue in the backfield now, but Collins was clearly the best runner of the group and splitting carries with Heyward or Jefferson would have done nothing but stunt his growth.

Worst coaching decision

When a team goes 6-6 there are plenty of in-game decisions that can be questioned, and there were plenty for the Spartans this season. But we’ll take a big-picture view here and say the reshuffling of the coaching staff did not work at all and has Dantonio in the same spot heading into this offseason regarding his staff. The offensive output was nearly identical to last season and there wasn’t exactly a ton of innovation on the field in terms of scheme. Execution matters, but the fact the coaching moves produced nothing means real change likely should have happened last season.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau