Michigan State began 2018 with high expectations. The Spartans were coming off a 10-3 2017 season and returned 19 starters, including star quarterback Brian Lewerke. They won the Holiday Bowl with an emphatic 42-17 over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl, and many in East Lansing expected bigger and better things in the upcoming season. This Michigan State team seemed like one that could contend for the Big Ten title and contend for the Rose Bowl, another New Year’s Six bowl, or the Citrus Bowl.
What began with an underwhelming win over Utah State quickly turned into a season going down the drain, largely thanks to injuries. Cornerback Josiah Scott was injured before the season and has played the last four games. His status for the bowl game is uncertain, because he can redshirt if he sits out one more game. The defense also saw cornerbacks Josh Butler and Tyson Smith and defensive end Josh Panasiuk injured at different parts of the year.
The defense remained strong despite numerous injuries, as they finished the regular season first in the nation in rush defense, allowing 81.3 yards per game, 14th in total defense with 312 yards per game and scoring defense, allowing 18 points per game. Defensive end Kenny Willekes and Joe Bachie remained healthy the entire year, and the Spartan defense kept them in games all year, and aided them in wins against Penn State and Rutgers.
The offense was much more severely impacted by injury, and the results were evident all season. They put up 38 points against Utah State, but were held to only 13 in a loss to Arizona State. After that Arizona State game, starting running back LJ Scott was injured and returned for the Michigan and Purdue games before sitting for the rest of the year. He’s only played in four games, and will redshirt and be eligible to play in 2019.
Perhaps most damaging to the Spartan offense was the five offensive linemen who were injured at different points in the season. There was little to no continuity in the offensive line, and the unit struggled all year. Protection for Lewerke wasn’t the strongest, and the offensive as a whole suffered as a result. Four wide receivers, arguably Lewerke’s four best weapons, were injured in 2018. Cody White broke his hand in the Central Michigan game, and sat until the Maryland game over a month later. Felton Davis III tore his Achilles against Michigan, a season-ending injury, which marked the end of a storied career for the senior. Darrell Stewart and Jalen Nailor were also injured this year.
The most impactful single injury occurred to Brian Lewerke. The quarterback struggled for much of the season, culminating in a 5 for 25 performance in a 21-7 loss to Michigan. He only threw for 66 yards, and was missing receivers all afternoon. After the game, it was revealed that he had been suffering a shoulder injury, and he, head coach Mark Dantonio, and offensive coordinator Dave Warner gave conflicting answers about whether Lewerke practiced in the week leading up to the game. He sat out in the following game, a win over Purdue, as Rocky Lombardi filled in for him. He led the Spartans to victory over Maryland the next week, but again sat out in a 9-6 loss to Nebraska. Lombardi got the start against Rutgers in the season finale, but Lewerke appeared for one throw, which was an interception. He threw an interception in every game he’s played in except for the Michigan game, and hasn’t thrown a touchdown since he threw two in the 21-17 upset win over Penn State. He ended the regular season completing 54.2% of his passes for 1868 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He had shown signs of regression before his injury, but hasn’t looked the same since the Michigan game.
After starting the year with such high expectations, the Spartans appear to be headed to a smaller bowl game than anyone in East Lansing would like. National outlets are predicting that Michigan State will appear in a wide variety of bowl games, including the Redbox Bowl in San Francisco, the Outback Bowl in Tampa, and the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. Personally, I think that there are more deserving Big Ten teams for the Florida bowls, but the Redbox Bowl could be a good landing spot for them. I project the Spartans to go to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, but I also see the Redbox Bowl and the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium as realistic bowls for them.