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MSU football review: Davis, Bachie help marshal 9-3 turnaround

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Felton Davis

Most valuable player, offense: There are a few directions to go here as it’s hard to overlook the impressive stretch QB Brian Lewerke had in the middle of Big Ten play and the receivers, as a whole, played a big role in MSU’s success. But the choice her is junior WR Felton Davis. He led the team with 51 catches for 658 yards and eight touchdowns, which ranked third in the Big Ten. He proved to be Lewerke’s favorite target in the red zone and had three two-touchdown games while ranking sixth in the Big Ten in receptions per game (4.3).

Most valuable player, defense: Another tough one as DE Kenny Willekes, CB Josiah Scott and S David Dowell all had outstanding seasons. But the importance of the middle linebacker in this defense is hard to understate and sophomore Joe Bachie was outstanding. He was eighth in the Big Ten with 94 tackles, had 3.5 sacks, intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and recovered one. That production, across the board, was hard to match.

Joe Bachie

Most improved player, offense: Darrell Stewart entered the season with three catches and two rushing attempts in one season of action and quickly proved how important he would be as a sophomore catching six passes for 85 yards in the opener then running for 70 yards in week two. He finished with 48 catches for 486 yards and two touchdowns while running for 140 yards and proved to be Michigan State’s toughest runner after the catch.

Most improved player, defense: There would be plenty of votes for S David Dowell in this category, but DE Kenny Willekes gets the nod. He’s played in one career game entering the season and the former walk-on turned himself into an All-Big Ten player by leading the team in sacks (7) and tackles for loss (14.5). He also hurried the quarterback seven times and recovered a pair of fumbles as he started all but one game this season.

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Unsung hero, offense: The offensive line took a lot of heat this season because of its inconsistent play and much of it was to be expected as the unit was light on experience. Senior center Brian Allen was the one force on the line that missed only a snap or two all season and was a steady force. The numbers won’t show it this season, but Allen’s steady hand will likely pay off big for this group in the next year or two as the young players develop

Defensive end Kenny Willekes, a former walk-on, developed into an All-Big Ten player for Michigan State.

Unsung hero, defense: Linebacker Chris Frey put everything he had into turning the program around and his leadership is where he made the most impact. Not just in the offseason, but during the season as well. His numbers dropped way off as he had just 49 tackles, but he never let the fact he was a senior stand in the way of the program. He deferred late in the season to sophomore Tyriq Thompson and freshman Antjuan Simmons, moves that will absolutely benefit the defense in the next few seasons.

Season highlight 1: Even though Michigan State has dominated the series with Michigan under coach Mark Dantonio, beating the Wolverines never gets old for the Spartans, especially when everyone is counting them out. The win in Ann Arbor on Oct. 7 was no different but MSU jumped out early then its defense took over when the rains came for the eighth win in the last 10 meetings.

Season highlight 2: By the time the Spartans hosted Penn State on Nov. 4, they’d already proven the turnaround was in full swing. But when they came out of a three-and-a-half hour weather delay and stormed past the Nittany Lions, it meant the Spartans were in contention for the Big Ten East title, something few would have predicted before the season.

Season highlight 3: Aside from the one-sided loss to Ohio State, the defense proved throughout the season it was quickly returning to what had become expected under Dantonio. The run defense was dominant for most of the season while the pass rush returned and the Spartans got back to creating turnovers. Defense has been MSU’s calling card and 2017 proved that will still be the case moving forward.

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Season lowlight 1: There was cautious optimism heading into a week three matchup with Notre Dame, but by the end of the night at Spartan Stadium the Spartans had handed away a 20-point loss. The frustrating part was allowing the Irish to score 21 points off three turnovers, leaving the Spartans with the feeling they had given the game away.

Season lowlight 2: Almost nothing good came out of the trip to Ohio State as the Buckeyes handed the Spartans a monumental whipping. MSU entered the game with a shot to win the Big Ten East but allowed a record 335 yards on the ground and were never in the game.

Season lowlight 3: The fact Michigan State could never consistently run the ball had to be one of the big disappointments. There was plenty of depth at running back but the Spartans were inexperienced on the offensive line and it resulted in just two 100-yard rushing games from a back (both from LJ Scott) as the Spartans rarely took over games running the ball.

Key player arriving: Four-star tight end Trenton Gillison could have a chance to make an immediate impact at a position that had limited production this season. Junior Matt Sokol had trouble hanging on to the ball while the opportunities were limited for redshirt freshman Noah Davis and freshman Matt Dotson. It leaves the door open for the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Gillison to play early.

Key player departing: It’s a bit out of the box considering he’s not a senior, but odds are LJ Scott heads to the NFL a year early. He didn’t have the season many expected but that might not matter in the decision-making process. Coupled with Gerald Holmes’ graduation, that would leave Madre London and a bunch of youngsters in the backfield.