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Know Your Enemy, Spring Edition: Michigan State Spartans

The Spartans should be better than the three-win team they fielded a season ago.

Big Ten Championship
LJ Scott crushes the College Football Playoff and Big Ten Championship dreams of Hawkeye fans everywhere. You remember this. It was the worst.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Next up in our weekly look at Iowa’s 2017 football opponents is Week-fi foe Michigan State. A mass exodus of talent due to graduation and the NFL Draft had many people expecting a down-year compared to what the Spartans are accustomed to as of late, but nobody could have predicted the disaster that was their 2016 campaign.

Now, head coach Mark Dantonio and the Spartans begin the uphill climb back to being competitive in their division -- and they’ll do so in the historically familiar shadow of the other Big Ten program in the state.

Let’s take a look.

2016 Synopsis

It wasn’t pretty. After starting the 2016 slate 2-0 and beating Notre Dame in South Bend, Michigan State proceeded to lose eight straight games. They stopped the bleeding with a 49-0 trouncing of Rutgers and followed it up with a hard-fought 17-16 loss against Ohio State and a blowout loss to Penn State to close out the season. It was Michigan State’s worst season since 1994 — when the Spartans finished 0-11 — and the first time during Dantonio’s tenure that they failed to qualify for a bowl game.

Who did they lose?

Despite being downright awful, the Spartans had some pretty elite talent. They lose household name Riley Bullough at linebacker and stud safety Demetrious Cox. Up front, defensive tackle Malik McDowell was one of the best in the nation at the position, and his will be some of the bigger shoes Mark Dantonio has to fill.

Offensively, they lose guard Brandon Clemons and center Benny McGowan up front. They also lose three solid receiving targets in tight end Josiah Price, wide receiver Monty Madaris and Swiss Army Knife player R.J. Shelton. The three of them combined for over 1,500 receiving yards and 11 scores last season.

Who do they return?

Quarterback Brian Lewerke looks to have a solid handle on the starting job after playing sparingly last season. Donnie Corley and Felton Davis saw significant action last season and will likely be the top receiving targets early on. They have a couple of solid starters in Brian Allen and Cole Chewins back on the offensive line. And of course, they have that pair of running backs — L.J. Scott and Gerald Holmes — that combined for 1,425 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground in 2016.

Defensively, a pair of solid tackles — Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk — anchor the front four. Defensive end Robert Bowers came on strong at the end of 2016 and is poised to have a breakout season this year as a sophomore. They also return a couple of solid linebackers in Chris Frey and Andrew Dowell.

Why should Iowa be worried?

The Spartans are still capable of controlling tempo with a power-running game led by Scott. That could spell trouble in the first half of the season against an Iowa defense that could be looking for an identity well into November.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan State boasts an experienced front seven that should present a significant hurdle that limits what the Hawkeyes want to do: control the tempo with the ground game themselves.

Why should Iowa not be worried?

The Spartans lack explosiveness and dependable receiving targets for Lewerke to look for downfield, which is likely to render the offense fairly one-dimensional. When Iowa has the ball, question marks in the receiving score spells trouble against most teams — but not Michigan State. The Spartan secondary has as many question marks as the Iowa receiving corps heading into the fall. That factors into Iowa’s rushing attack as well. Akrum Wadley is the biggest big-play threat on the field for either team. If he can find holes to get into Michigan State’s secondary, there’s a high-probability that he breaks off a handful of long runs.

Key Player for Michigan State

Robert Bowers — He’ll be responsible for both applying pressure on Iowa during obvious passing downs and setting the edge to prevent Wadley from breaking big plays to the outside.

Key Player for Iowa

The offensive line — They’ll have their hands full with the Spartan D-line and linebackers. If they can be just adequate in opening running lanes, Wadley should take care of the rest. If they can provide solid pass protection for whoever ends up as the starting quarterback, the Hawkeyes have a puncher’s chance to move the ball through the air against Michigan State’s secondary.