Players and coaches come and go every year in the Big Ten, but oftentimes trends continue on offense even with the new faces. This week at Land of 10, we are going to take a look at every offense in the league and compare it to a year ago, making a determination whether they should be better or worse in 2016. We will assess a team a day in each division, and today we will take a look at the Michigan State Spartans.
Football is a bottom-line business and all that really matters is winning and losing, not how you do it. So Michigan State winning the Big Ten championship last year actually masked a few things, most notably a surprising drop-off in productivity from the offense. But those nice, shiny championship rings are a worthy trade-off.
That was a bit of a surprise a year ago. Connor Cook was back for a third year as the starting quarterback and the offensive line was supposed to be one of the best in the country. But the offense was pedestrian at best, finishing ninth in the Big Ten in rushing — and a shocking 93rd out of 128 teams nationally — and the passing game was average, as well.
But give the Spartans credit. They always found a way to make just enough plays on offense, getting past Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa in critical games when it mattered the most.
There’s plenty of change afoot in East Lansing for the defending champions. Only four starters return on offense, and there is no time to ease into anything. An odd schedule has an opener with Furman and then an immediate bye week, followed by a showdown with Notre Dame and 11 straight weeks of football. The Spartans are all going to need to be on the same proverbial page right from the get-go.
Here’s a close look at Michigan State’s offense:
Michigan State by the numbers
Total yards per game: 385.5 (6th in Big Ten/No. 73 nationally)
Rushing yards per game: 151.3 (9th in Big Ten/No. 93 nationally)
Passing yards per game: 234.2 (6th in Big Ten/No. 55 nationally)
Key players lost: OL Jack Conklin
Key returning players: OL Brian Allen, RB LJ Scott, C Kodi Kieler
The skinny: Michigan State’s offensive line is in transition, but there’s still plenty of talent to go around, and it might even be better than the 2015 group, which underperformed many times during the season. There’s plenty of excitement around LJ Scott, who stepped in late in 2015 and emerged as a future star. He’s short and stocky — 6 feet, 238 pounds — but he hits holes hard and is tough to bring down. As a freshman last year, he led the team in carries (149), yards (699), and touchdowns (11) and scored the most important touchdown of the year, clinching the win over Iowa in the Big Ten championship game. Kieler, a three-year starter, is moving to center and Allen is also a stud on the line. The group is deep and versatile, and comes into the season with plenty of motivation. The Spartans want to be better at running the ball this year, and they probably will be.
Key players lost: QB Connor Cook, WR Aaron Burbridge
Key returning players: QB Tyler O’Connor, WR R.J. Shelton, TE Josiah Price
The skinny: Connor Cook went 34-5 as a starter at Michigan State and it’s hard to dispute that success in any way. Even though his NFL draft stock dropped during the course of his senior year, make no mistake, losing him is huge. Replacing an NFL-quality QB is always painful. Aaron Burbridge’s departure is big, too, because he was a reliable target in East Lansing. It’s going to be imperative that Shelton emerges as a star, but it’s also going to be interesting to see how well he can get open with the extra attention that comes along with being a No. 1 receiver. Can he beat double teams? Will an inexperienced O’Connor try to force too many balls to the only true veteran on the outside? There are a lot of scary questions to still be answered.
One stat that must improve
7 wins. How’s that for a scary number, Michigan State fans?
The last time the Spartans had to replace a veteran NFL-ready quarterback — Kirk Cousins in 2012 — they struggled mightily, going just 7-6. It might have been the most frustrating year of Mark Dantonio’s run at Michigan State, and it’s the only one in the last six that didn’t add up to double-digit wins.
The Spartans’ program is far better — and far deeper — these days so that kind of precipitous drop is unlikely, but it’s always possible if the quarterback play is subpar. That happened in 2012, when the Spartans averaged only 4.88 yards per play, which ranked 104th out of 124 teams nationally that season.
That O’Connor can’t play at a Big Ten title-winning level. Sure, the Spartans defense is very good, but for MSU to have a successful year, the offense has to be better. O’Connor did have the one start — and massive win — last year against Ohio State, but let’s not forget that he was only 7 of 12 passing for 89 yards. Yes, the weather was horrible, but the point is that we really don’t know if O’Connor can play. He’s been on campus forever, yet this is the first time we’re really going to see a lot of him. Can he handle it? The jury is out, for sure.
Better or worse in 2016?
WORSE, BUT ONLY SLIGHTLY: The running game behind Scott is going to be much better, because the sophomore certainly looks to be that kind of guy who’s ready for stardom. He’s going to need to be, because it’s unlikely that O’Connor matches Cook’s numbers in the passing game. It’s a bad combination when you have a new QB and only four returning starters on an offense. There might be some early struggles, and there also might be a shortage of playmakers for beating Michigan and Ohio State late.