After a 2018 to forget for No. 18 (AP)/No. 20 (USA) Michigan State, the Spartans hope keeping quarterback Brian Lewerke healthy will lead to a 2019 to remember as they open the season Friday night versus Tulsa.
The Spartans have swung wildly in terms of results the last three seasons, going from 3-9 in 2016 to 10-3 in 2017 to 7-6 last season, but much of the inconsistency of 2018 can be chalked up to a mid-season shoulder injury to Lewerke.
Michigan State was 4-2 heading into the first game following the injury, but the offense nose-dived the second half of the season, scoring seven or fewer points on four occasions and totaling 32 in the final four games. An incredibly stout defense kept them in most games, and the Spartans nearly escaped with a bowl win before losing 7-6 to Oregon in the Redbox Bowl.
Lewerke, who tried to play through the pain, threw for 2,040 yards but only eight touchdowns while completing 54.3 percent of his passes. An all-Big Ten honorable mention as a sophomore in 2017, Lewerke looks to be fully healthy with all his arm strength back for this season.
He was not the only offensive starter to miss a game as Michigan State had nine other players on that side of the ball sidelined at least one contest, contributing to an offense ranking 117th of 129 FBS teams. The Spartans trio of wide receivers -- Cody White, Darrell Stewart and Jalen Nailor -- were among those who sat out once, and White’s return may be the most pivotal since he had 42 receptions for a team-high 555 yards last season.
The defense, however, is where Michigan State will make its bones. The entire front four of a group that led the nation against the run at 77.9 yards per game return, anchored by Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Kenny Wilekes. He returned for his senior year after a broken leg suffered in the Redbox Bowl scuttled his plans of entering the NFL Draft.
Tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk have each started the last 29 games for the Spartans, who also boast a first-team all-conference selection in linebacker Joe Bachie.
Tulsa has won a combined five games over the past two seasons after going 10-3 and winning the Miami Beach Bowl in 2016. The Golden Hurricane’s biggest strength will be sternly challenged by the Spartans as running backs Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor II will get the ball often.
Brooks finished 33 yards shy of 1,000 last season and had seven TDs, while Taylor netted 846 while leading the team with 11 rushing and receiving scores. Tulsa has lost 20 straight games to ranked opponents since upsetting then-No. 24 UTEP 37-35 in 2004.
How to Watch Tulsa vs Michigan State
When: Friday, Aug. 30
Where: Spartan Stadium, East Lansing, MI
Time: 7:00 pm EDT