Michigan State had a 22-17 record in Mark Dantonio’s first three seasons as coach. But the last five seasons tell you just where this program has gone. The Spartans improved to 53-14 during that stretch after pulling victory from the jaws of defeat against Baylor in the Cotton Bowl (42-41).
Michigan State was 11-2 last season, and the losses came to the two teams that made it to the national title game — Ohio State and Oregon.
Defense has been the foundation of that success and it will be again this year, even though coordinator Pat Narduzzi left to take the Pittsburgh job.
The Spartans’ front seven got the job done last season. Michigan State led the nation in rushing defense at 88.5 yards per game. Nine teams didn’t reach 100 yards, more than anyone else in the country. The Spartans’ 13 opponents carried the ball just 363 times, the fewest of anyone in the country. More than 30 percent of those carries resulted in zero, or negative, yardage.
It wasn’t a steel curtain defense, however. Ohio State, Baylor and Oregon averaged 45.3 points against the Spartans and 7.9 yards per play. The other 10 teams averaged 14.4 points and 4.1 yards per play.
First-team all-Big Ten defensive end Shilique Calhoun is back, along with tackles Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath and linebackers Ed Davis and Darien Harris.
Senior Connor Cook is back at quarterback after throwing for a Big Ten-best 247.2 yards per game. Cook was also second in pass efficiency (149.4) and third in total offense (253.4).
The secondary lost a pair of important pieces in Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond. Waynes was the 11th player selected in the first round of April’s NFL Draft.
First-team all-Big Ten wide receiver Tony Lippett (65 catches, 1,198 yards, 11 TDs) is also gone, as are second-team all-Big Ten linebacker Taiwan Jones and defensive end Marcus Rush.
Still to be settled
It was the year of the running back in the Big Ten in 2014, and Jeremy Langford got lost in the shuffle. But he played a huge role in the Spartans’ success, rushing for 1,522 yards and 22 touchdowns. He’s gone. So is No. 2 rusher Nick Hill (622 yards) and No. 3 rusher Delton Williams’ (316 yards) future with the team is unclear after an offseason arrest. Langford and Hill both averaged more than 5.5 yards per carry.
The next man in could be R.J. Shelton, who had 21 carries for 148 yards last season. He was listed as the starter coming out of spring ball. Two players to watch are redshirt freshman Madre London and sophomore Gerald Holmes.
The good news is that most of Michigan State’s offensive line is back, led by first-team all-Big Ten center Jack Allen and second-team all-Big Ten tackle Jack Conklin.
There are some reps at wide receiver available, too, with Lippett and Keith Mumphery gone. But looking to step in are Macgarrett Kings Jr., and Aaron Burbridge. Both have caught at least 20 passes in each of the last two seasons.
Placekicker Michael Geiger, who made 14-of-22 field goals, is back but punter Mike Sadler (41.2-yard average) must be replaced.
Don’t expect Michigan State’s defense to miss a beat with Narduzzi gone. And the offense is in good hands with Cook, who has made 26 career starts at quarterback. He threw for 3,214 yards last season, with 24 touchdowns to eight interceptions. This is not a team that can challenge Ohio State for the East Division title, but another 10-win season is very possible.