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Hawkeye Football Opponent Preview: Michigan State Spartans

A new era of football begins in East Lansing

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Michigan State v Wake Forest Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

As we countdown the days and weeks until the beginning of the Iowa football season, we’ll be previewing each of Iowa’s opponents in 2020. While the season may seem far in the distance (and seemingly more and more unlikely), we’re currently eight weeks from our first game week of the year...maybe.

Our fourth entry in our series of previews is Iowa’s Week 5 matchup against the Michigan State Spartans, who are entering a new era after the resignation of Mark Dantonio back in February.


Michigan State Spartans

2019 Record: 7-6, (4-5), 5th in Big Ten East

The Iowa Hawkeyes and Michigan State Spartans met in Indianapolis in 2015 for a Big Ten Championship matchup that to this day haunts me. It was well known that the victor would go on to play in the College Football Playoffs semifinal, while the other would most likely go to the Rose Bowl.

We all know what happened next - Michigan State won in a heartbreaker for Iowa fans, and went on to get blanked by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Iowa went on to get blown to smithereens by Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Since that meetings, both programs have been on quite different paths, and for the Spartans, it was all downhill from the heights of the CFP. That culminated in last year’s 7-6 season - its second such season in a row - but ended with the sudden retirement of head coach Mark Dantonio, at least somewhat potentially related to the lawsuit from former MSU football staff member Curtis Blackwell.

So where does that leave the program heading into 2020? With a new head coach in Mel Tucker, hired away from Colorado, new offensive coordinator in Jay Johnson, and new defensive coordinator in Scottie Hazelton. Add that to departures from quarterback Brian Lewerke and six three-year starters on defense, there are a lot of holes to fill for this squad.

Key Departures

Obviously, Dantonio and his coaching staff are the biggest departure of the offseason. The program is headed into a new era under Tucker, who had only one season at Colorado under his belt before coming to East Lansing. The Buffalo went 5-7 in that lone season. Before that, Tucker most notably spent time as the defensive coordinator for the Georgia Bulldogs from 2016-18.

A big departure on offense comes from quarterback Brian Lewerke. While the senior struggled throughout his time as the starter, he brought a lot of experience to an MSU squad that could use it under new leadership. The squad also lost a lot of talent at receiver, particularly Cody White, who left after his junior season for the NFL Draft after accumulating 922 yards on 66 catches, to go along with six touchdown receptions. The team’s second leading receiver, Darrell Stewart Jr., tallied 697 yards and 4 touchdowns on 49 receptions, and tight end Matt Seybert, the third leading receiver on the team, logged 284 yards and three touchdowns on 26 receptions.

Defensively, the team lost 6 three-year starters last season. But Tucker is almost certainly going to rely on his defense to be the backbone of the team, given his background working his way up to becoming Georgia’s defensive coordinator.

The Spartans lost a great pass-rusher in Kenny Willekes at defensive end, along with losing defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk. At linebacker, the team lost Tyriq Thompson and Joe Bachie, and will certainly miss Josiah Scott at cornerback after his earlydeparture for the NFL. Josh Butler struggled at times, but provided veteran leadership. Punter Jake Hartbarger also graduated, and leaves the team with a competition at punter for the first time since 2015.

Key Returners

Offensively, it looks like, at least initially, the team will be led by returning junior quarterback (and Iowa native) Rocky Lombardi, who saw playing time at different parts of his first two seasons as Lewerke went in and out from the starting spot; Lombardi will most likely compete with sophomore Theo Day for the starting spot. MSU’s new QB will be protected by a veteran offensive line who mostly all saw playing time last season as the offensive line struggled to find cohesion. They will be led by center Matt Allen, who will need to stay healthy for the offensive line to really find its footing.

His health would be crucial for sophomore running back Elijah Collins, who nearly became MSU’s first 1000 yard rusher since 2014 with his 988 yards and 5 touchdowns on 222 attempts, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. His successful freshman campaign is definitely garnering him recognition as we inch closer to the (potential) season.

Defensively, the team will be anchored by senior defensive tackle Naquan Jones and linebacker Antjuan Simmons, who led the unit with 90 tackles last season after stepping in for the injured Joe Bachie; he’ll be joined by returning junior linebacker Noah Harvery, who logged 49 tackles. Second leading tackler at safety, Xavier Henderson, also returns after logging 83 tackles, but the secondary will need to step it up after allowing easy yards all last season - 208 passing yards per game, in fact. Shakur Brown had 23 tackles, 2 sacks and an interception last season and will at least bring more in-game experience to the unit along with senior Dominique Long.

And finally, kicker Matt Coghlin returns as well, and is being listed on many pre-season watch lists, despite his shaky 2019 campaign.

2020 Preview

Preseason predictions seem to put MSU as a middle of the road team for 2020, and after doing research for this post, I can see why. 6-6 seems like a pretty fair prediction for a team that lost so much veteran talent, particularly on defense. Add in instilling a new head coach and system, new quarterback and receivers, and a decently difficult schedule, I’d say MSU is in for a rebuilding year in Tucker’s first season.

Iowa/MSU Prediction

Iowa will also be in sort of a rebuilding year as it breaks in a new quarterback, but brings back a lot of veteran talent on both sides of the ball. The Hawks are on a three game losing streak to MSU after somehow pulling off one of their four victories on the season against the Spartans in 2012. I think this game will be a close, low scoring affair for most of the game, but Iowa’s home field advantage and veteran coaching staff and players will be the X-factor.

Iowa 14, MSU 13