Never underestimate coach Mark Dantonio and the Michigan State football program.
That message was delivered loud and clear last season. Aftera 3-9 campaign in 2016 and a tumultuous offseason, the Spartans were lightly regarding heading into last season. There was even talk that Dantonio might be on the hot seat.
All the Spartans did was finish 10-3, including victories over rival Michigan and Penn State, capped with a 42-17 thumping of Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
With a return to prominence, the Spartans begin their 2018 season with lofty expectations. They open the season against Utah State at home on Friday with the No. 11 ranking and Big Ten championship aspirations. The two programs will be squaring off for the first time.
Dantonio’s teams have traditionally been built around defense, but the Spartans should also be dynamic on offense. They have one of the conference’s, if not the nation’s, top quarterbacks in Brian Lewerke and a premier running back in LJ Scott.
Lewerke, a junior, threw for 20 touchdowns last season and completed 59 percent of his passes while getting picked off just seven times. He was also second on the team with 559 rushing yards and five more touchdowns.
Scott gained 898 yards on 201 carries (4.5 average) and scored eight touchdowns.
“I feel like we’re a good enough offense to put a lot of points up, hopefully,” Lewerke told the Detroit Free Press. “I know the offense like the back of my hand now. I can focus a lot more on what the defense is giving me. I trust all my guys to run all the right stuff.
“I can just be more calm and not think, ‘Ah, man, I forgot what this guy is running, I’ve got to figure it out as he’s running it.’ It’s more just be calm and have fun.”
Overall, the Spartans return 19 position starters, tied for most in the nation, and 48 letterwinners.
That includes the team’s top four tacklers, led by junior linebacker Joe Bachie, who racked up 100 last season along with 3 1/2 sacks and three interceptions.
Safety Khari Willis, a tri-captain along with Bachie and Lewerke, spearheads the secondary. The Spartans ranked second in rushing defense nationally and could be just as stingy this season with nine returning starters.
“We had a good camp,” Bachie told the Detroit News. “Guys got through it healthy so that’s a great thing. We have a bunch of smart players on defense, which helps a defense. Talking and being confident, that makes a good defense.”
The Aggies hope to put up more resistance against a Big Ten team than they did last season, when they opened with a 59-10 loss at Wisconsin. They are 1-14 all time against Big Ten opponents.
Utah State finished at 6-7 after losing to New Mexico State 26-20 in the Arizona Bowl.
Experience will also be an asset for the Aggies this season. They have 18 starters back, nine on each side of the ball.
Sophomore quarterback Jordan Love appeared in 12 games as a redshirt freshman and started the last six. He completed 54.9 percent of his passes, including eight touchdowns, while getting picked off six times. His top target, senior Ron’quavion Tarver, hauled in seven touchdowns a year ago.
“He is going to be a better quarterback and the better people will play around him,” coach Matt Wells said. “We’ve added some better wideouts around him. There is more talent and he has got an experienced offensive line, and that always gives a quarterback a sense of comfort and peace a little bit.”
Senior linebacker Suli Tamaivena (team-high 111 tackles) tops a defensive unit that has eight of its top nine tacklers back.
“We’re deeper in the front seven than we’ve been, even though we kind of leave camp right now a little banged up at linebacker,” Wells said. “I think they’re playing fast and with a lot of confidence right now.”
Utah State will be playing in the state of Michigan for just the second time. Its last visit was in 1961 when it defeated Western Michigan 65-22 in Kalamazoo.