Sure, there were injuries and all, but the 2018 Michigan State Spartans were flat out an ugly team to watch most of the time. They had become so inept on offense that it was difficult to get through a full three hours. It’s a miracle, really, that they somehow still managed to win seven games.
That had a lot to do with a tremendous defense, of course, but it’s also set the stage for what becomes a critical 2019 season. Consecutive seasons like that might be too much to take, even for the more diehard of fans in green and white. So as we creep closer to the season opener on Friday, Aug. 30 against Tulsa (7 p.m. ET; TV: FoxSports1), there are still some burning questions to answer.
1. Will the offense really change under new coordinator Brad Salem?
Former quarterbacks and running backs coach Brad Salem is the new offensive coordinator after last season went epically bad. Michigan State ranked 114th running the ball, and 77th in passing offense (out of 129 NCAA teams), so coach Mark Dantonio reshuffled the decks in coaching assignments and handed the play-calling duties to Salem, who’s been in East Lansing with him for 10 years now.
Even though they kept things simple in the spring, there was a clear emphasis on playing at a quicker tempo and trying to create more explosive plays. That remains to be seen if that happens. Brian Lewerke is a senior now, and he wants some big things to happen in his final year as Michigan State’s quarterback. We’ll see if it gets better. It can’t really get worse, right?
2. Is Mark Dantonio too loyal to his offensive coaches?
What does it take to get fired in East Lansing? When Dantonio promoted Salem, all he did with former co-coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman was put them back as position coaches, quarterbacks and offensive line, respectively. There’s even a third former coordinator still on the offensive staff, wide receivers coach Don Treadwell.
If all you’re doing is moving pieces around, is that really the best way to get better? I appreciate employer loyalty as much as anyone, but wouldn’t some fresh ideas be welcomed to an offense that’s gotten so stale and predictable? Salem better show some positive signs early, or there may be screams for blowing the whole thing up.
3. Was 7-6 an outlier, or more of a trend?
Outside of the win at Penn State and maybe Purdue, the seven wins by the Spartans last year weren’t all that impressive. And the six losses, they were downright ugly. In the last four, to Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and the bowl game against Oregon, the Spartans scored a total of only 26 points. A TOTAL!
Can we see more of the same this year? It’s very possible. There’s always optimism in August about the offense being better, but I think we’re all on the same page in knowing we’re going to need to see it to believe it. We do have recent history to rely on that trends can be avoided. After the gawd-awful 2016 season ended with a 3-9 record, the 2017 bunch bounced back to win 10 games. Here’s to hoping that happens, but it’s hard to be confident about that right now.
4. Can the defense still be overpowering?
Michigan State was No. 1 in the country against the run last year (77.9 yards per game) and was No. 10 overall in total defense. The group kept the Spartans in games, and made one big play after another.
Asking them to play at that high of a level again might be a reach, but there is still plenty of talent on that side of the ball. The defense has eight starters back, including stud defensive end Kenny Willekes and standout linebacker Joe Bachie. There’s no doubt in my mind this is the best defense in the Big Ten, but will they have to do too much again? Probably.
5. Can that rotten attitude go away?
There was plenty of in-fighting last year when the defense had to carry the load just to keep the Spartans in games. That can’t happen again. So far it seems to be different.
“The vibe completely flipped from last year. We’re looking forward to an explosive and exciting season,” Michigan State wide receiver Cody White said last week. Doing that 180 is needed and necessary to get through this season, which includes road games at Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin. And a better attitude is necessary, but winning does often cure that.