Michigan State has had plenty of success in the Big Ten East under Mark Dantonio, a tough division where getting to the top is hard, and staying there is even harder.
In a division filled with bluebloods like Ohio State, Penn State and that other Michigan school down the road, it’s a tough go sometimes. But with the division in a bit of transition right now, this could be the time where the Spartans can make a move.
But are they really up to it?
Let’s take a look around. Urban Meyer has retired at Ohio State, and there’s no telling how Ryan Day is going to do as the new head coach. These transitions from legends are never easy, and they could have some bumps in the road. Penn State is starting over after three years with Trace McSorley at quarterback. Michigan is losing several players, and now several coaches.
This is an odd division, with a true line of delineation. There are the haves mentioned above, and the have nots that are trying — so far very unsuccessfully — to crack the top half of the league. It hasn’t happened yet for Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers.
This year the Spartans were at the bottom of the top four, despite having a top-ranked defense. The bulk of that defense is back for 2019, which is a very good thing. And for a move to be made in 2019, it’s the offense that has to pick up their game.
The Spartans defense got another big boost Tuesday night when All-American defensive end Kenny Willekes announced he was coming back for one more season. That was big, especially after linebacker Joe Bachie and defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk also decided to come back.
The Spartans had the No. 1 run defense in America, was No. 8 in scoring defense and No. 10 in total defense. Eight starters will be returning, and there are fine recruits on the way, as well, so this group may not miss a beat. They take an enormous amount of pride in what they do as a ground. Band of brothers and all.
“I will be returning to Michigan State for my senior year to pursue the goal of returning to the Big Ten championship with my brothers,” Willekes wrote.
Willekes broke his the fibula in his left leg during he Spartans’ 7-6 loss to Oregon in the Redbox Bowl on Dec. 31, another game typical of Michigan State’s season, where the defense dominated even though it wasn’t enough. Willekes wants better memories.
“Playing in the NFL is a childhood dream I’ve had for a very long time,” Willekes wrote. “While this didn’t seem plausible two years ago, I am now blessed to be in a position where I have a decision to make. After much discussion with my family, coaches and close friends, I have decided this is not the way I want to end my career at Michigan State.”
Willekes has 151 tackles and 15.5 sacks during his two years on the field in East Lansing. He ranks ninth in program history in tackles for a loss (35.0) and 10th in sacks, including five two-sack games. He gives the Spartans an impressive leader at each level of the defense, with Bachie and cornerback Josiah Scott, who will be an All-American candidate at cornerback next year provided he can stay healthy.
There is some hope that the offense will be much better next year. Brian Lewerke will be back at quarterback, and there’s just no way to presume so many injuries a second year in a row to their offensive line and wide receiver groups.
But these returns on defense are a great start for a better season. September can’t get here soon enough.