Know Your Penn State Football Enemy: Michigan State Spartans

Nov 28, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans tight end Josiah Price (82) makes a catch against Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Grant Haley (15) during the second half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 28, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans tight end Josiah Price (82) makes a catch against Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Grant Haley (15) during the second half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports /

Penn State hosts Michigan State in a post-Thanksgiving matchup for the coveted Land Grant Trophy in the regular season finale.

Penn State closes out the 2016 regular season with a post-Thanksgiving Day tilt against the Michigan State Spartans.  On the line, a chance to grab the coveted Land Grant Trophy.  The Spartans hold a slight 15-14 series lead over the Nittany Lions, having won the last three contests. Last year’s version was a one-sided affair, 55-16 in favor of the Spartans.

Sparty (12-2) is coming off a tremendous 2015 season which saw them lay claim to the Big Ten East title by defeating Ohio State at the Horseshoe.  The also defeated their longtime foe Michigan on a last-second play for the ages.  After dismantling the Big Ten East, Michigan State took home the Big Ten title by defeating Big Ten West champions, the Iowa Hawkeyes in another nail biter.  By virtue of their top-4 final ranking, the Spartans were one of four teams included in the college football playoff.  Their opponent — the Alabama Crimson Tide.  Michigan State put forth a solid effort, but the Crimson Tide were too much, defeating them by a score of 38-0.

The 2015 season was one of great accomplishment and euphoria for the Spartans.  And there, pulling the strings behind the curtain is head coach Mark Dantonio.  Ever since his 2007 arrival in East Lansing Dantonio has been able to forge a cohesiveness and a work ethic that culminates in success.  Nowhere is this more evident than his impressive 6-2 record against top-10 teams since 2014. No matter the formula for Michigan State’s success, Coach Dantonio seems to have a patent on the blueprint of success.

In 2015 Michigan State was the sixth-most prolific offense in the Big Ten in terms of yards per game averaging nearly 386 yards per contest.  The Spartans most valuable offensive weapon was senior quarterback Connor Cook.  Cook accounted for over 3100 yards of passing offense while compiling a 24:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

In 2016, Coach Dantonio will likely hand over the keys to the offense to senior Tyler O’Connor.  O’Connor, while short on game experience last season — appearing in only three games, showed his game management skills in defeating arguably Michigan State’s most difficult conference opponent, Ohio State.  With Cook not dressed for the game, O’Connor was 7-12 for 89 yards and one touchdown.

While O’Connor can manage the offense in 2016, the Spartans need to look to other offensive skill positions in order to find their identity.

Enter sophomore running back LJ Scott.

As a freshman in 215, Scott led the Spartans with nearly 700 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He would seemingly save his best performances for the pressure games.  Against Oregon on an early season grudge match, Scott rushed for 76 yards and two scores.  In facing rival Michigan, Scott also scored twice. When he squared off against Ohio State he averaged nearly five yards per carry.

There is little question that the Spartans will lean on the running ability of Scott in 2016.  He has the ability to be one of the Big Ten’s premier running backs in just his sophomore season.

At the wide receiver position, the Spartans will need to replace the offensive talent of seniors Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings, Jr.  Both players accounted for almost 1800 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns.

With both Burbridge and Kings, Jr. gone, look for the Spartans to turn to senior RJ Shelton. Senior tight end Josiah Price will also play an increased role.  Shelton and Price were the team’s third and fourth leading receivers, respectively.  Both players combined for 10 scores in 2015.

This season, expect Michigan State to feed those two players as much as any when they do put the ball in the air.  Their experience and ability will be relied upon as the Spartans allow the youth of their receiving corp to gain valuable game experience.

On defense, Michigan State employs a 4-3 scheme.  The Spartans will need to find a way to replace All-Big Ten defensive end Shilique Calhoun.  Calhoun was a man-among-boys last season, racking up 10.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.  The speedy defensive end has taken his talents to the NFL level and left a mammoth hole to fill.  Luckily for Spartan fans, defensive tackle Malik McDowell may be the next great defensive lineman at Michigan State.

Last season, while Calhoun was garnering all the attention, the sophomore McDowell was also putting up some eye-popping statistics.  He recorded 13 tackles for loss, second on the team behind Calhoun, as well as registering 4.5 sacks.  McDowell’s interior presence for Michigan State was just one reason why they were one of the stingiest defenses in all of the Big Ten in 2015.

Out on the defensive edge, junior Demetrius Cooper is back.  Last year he recorded five sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss.  With his speed off the edge and McDowell’s presence on the defensive line, Michigan State should still have one of the better defenses in the Big Ten in 2016.

The heart and soul of the Spartans defense is senior Riley Bullough.  The MIKE linebacker has not only been vocal on the field, but his presence in the locker room has been profound as well.  In 2015 Bullough led the Spartans with 106 tackles from scrimmage.  His ability to cover both sides of the field as well as his field presence and vision leave little doubt why he will be playing on Sundays after this season.

The greatest depth of talent on defense lies in the secondary.  Michigan State returns Demetrious Cox and junior Montae Nicholson.  Both Cox and Nicholson combined to record over 160 tackles and six interceptions.  These two may arguably be the best safety combination in the Big Ten.  Opposing offenses will need to be aware of where these two are when they are putting the ball into the air.

Joining Cox and Nicholson are at the cornerback position are senior Darian Hicks and sophomore Vayant Copeland.  Before teams think they can simply pass out on the edges against these two cornerbacks, they may want to re-calculate things.  Copeland did have one interception last season and Hicks contributed 33 tackles.

On special teams the Spartans return senior place kicker Michael Geiger.  In 2015 Geiger was 12 of 19 on field goals.  His biggest kick may have been the game winner as time expired to beat Ohio State.  Jake Hartbarger returns for his sophomore campaign as Spartan punter.  In 14 games last season he averaged 42.7 yards per attempt.

On paper it appears that Michigan and Ohio State should be the class of the Big Ten East.  Michigan State and Penn State will likely be vying for third and fourth place in the division.  The post-Thanksgiving game at Beaver Stadium might be one of the more intriguing matchups of the conference slate.

Michigan State’s 2016 schedule is relatively easy at the outset and features the tougher opponents in the second half.  A Sept 17 visit to Notre Dame, followed by a home game with Wisconsin the following weekend provide the biggest challenges until the end of October.  The Spartans conclude the season with three of five games against the Big Ten East elite. Games with  Michigan (Oct 29), Ohio State (Nov 19) and at Penn State (Nov 26) could all prove tough.

Overall this season, look for Michigan State to take a slight step back from last year’s Big Ten title team but still post a respectable mark which should be good enough for third in the conference.