Spartans, Wolverines look to soar

It’s still the middle of summer and the height of the Major League Baseball season, but by the end of this week, America’s pastime will be shoved to the backburner of the sports landscape.

That’s because NFL training camps began a couple days ago and NCAA Division I football practices begin this week.

As we all know, football is king of our country’s sports landscape and that’s all we in the media will be focusing on for at least the next two months. Baseball will now be forgotten until October and from what I’ve gathered on social media, Tigers fans are already hoping they can forget this season.

Speaking of forgetting, I imagine the two closest NFL franchises to the Upper Peninsula are trying to put last season behind them, though my preview on the Packers and Lions in the future.

Right now, the NFL season looks as if it’ll be disappointing for the majority of Yooper fans this year, but the college season shows much more promise.

Let’s start with Michigan State, which definitely wants to shake off last year. Yikes, that was bad. The Spartans started the season ranked 11th in the country and quarterback Brian Lewerke was seen by some as a potential darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate.

After barely surviving its season opener against a surprisingly good Utah State squad, MSU was upset by Arizona State and head coach Herm Edwards. Apparently, the Spartans didn’t listen to Edwards’ famous quote and “play to win the game.” The Spartans bounced back against Indiana and a hapless Central Michigan team, but dropped out of the Top 25 after a loss to Northwestern.

The highlight of the year was an upset over then-No. 8 Penn State in Happy Valley, but after that, the State offense stalled for the rest of the season, managing only seven points or fewer in losses to Michigan, Ohio State and a Nebraska team that finished 4-8.

The Spartans capped off their year with a 7-6 loss to Oregon in the prestigious Redbox Bowl, a score that was appropriate since that was their final record.

This year will probably be better, but it all depends on the offense, which is missing in every MSU advertisement on the Big Ten Network. Every ad about the Spartans only talks about their defense, so it appears the expectations are low again this season for the offense. Lewerke is back, but he’ll have to be at the top of his game as the Spartans play on the road against the rival Wolverines, OSU and Wisconsin.

MSU head coach Mark Dantonio also shook up his offensive staff in the offseason, moving up Brad Salem to offensive coordinator and dropping previous co-coordinator Dave Warner and Jim Bollman to position posts. As of now, this is a smart move as the Spartans were 125th in the nation in scoring offense and 116th in total offense.

What MSU doesn’t need to worry about is its defense as it was No. 1 in the country against the run and returns almost everybody. Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Kenny Willekes returns as does two All-Big Ten First Teamers in linebacker Joe Bachie and defensive tackle Raequan Williams.

Just like last year, the Spartans will most likely be carried by the defense, but if the offense is at least somewhat competent, a 9-3 season is definitely a possibility, but 8-4 is probably a little more realistic.

Expectations are much higher in Ann Arbor. Things are looking good for Michigan and this might finally be the Wolverines’ year to emerge as Big Ten champions. I know I’ve said this before and other reporters have done so as well, but the evidence truly says it could happen this season. Pundits have predicted U of M to not only win the Big Ten, but probably earn a College Football Playoff berth, something I’m sure Wolverines fans have wondered if their beloved squad will ever get.

Looking back on the end of last season, a playoff appearance may be understandably hard to believe. After a disappointing loss in the season opener to Notre Dame, the Wolverines caught fire. They won 10 straight, including a victory over MSU. Heading into the rivalry game with Ohio State, the Wolverines defense had been dominant and it held the Spartans to just 94 yards. However, against OSU, the defense flopped in epic fashion on national TV. U of M lost its seventh straight game to OSU and the defense surrendered an eye-popping 62 points.

That was also the Wolverines’ 14th loss in 15 games to the Buckeyes and if that wasn’t bad enough, they had to settle for an appearance in the Peach Bowl. In Atlanta, U of M must have gotten lost coming out of the tunnel at halftime as they were outscored 28-5 in the second half and lost 41-15 to Florida.

Those last two games are what people will remember from the season and I don’t blame them as that loss to OSU is still in my mind as I had to scrap my Wolverines’ victory column in the third quarter that Saturday.

Fun fact, defensive coordinator Don Brown was a candidate for the Broyles Award, which is given to the top assistant coach of the year. The OSU loss was a great teaching lesson in how to torch your chances at a big award in a single half.

On paper, things should be different this season as the Wolverines are secure at all major offensive positions. Shea Patterson is back at quarterback, the offensive line returns four of its starters and Patterson has two good receivers in Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins.

As Nick Baumgardner of the Detroit Free Press pointed out, U of M seems focused on having an offense that “makes sense in modern college football,” making you wonder why it took this long to embrace. Apparently, head coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t even going to interfere in how offensive coordinator Josh Gattis will run it, so there’s another point to feel good about.

Defensively, the Wolverines lost quite a bit, especially with consensus All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Devin Bush Jr. now in the NFL. All-Big Ten linemen Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich are also in the pros, so U of M will be missing three key players.

With the loss of Gary and Winovich, the Wolverines are a little shaky on the line, and according to MLive, Harbaugh said he wants to see more pass rushing from the interior linemen. That might be wishful thinking as U of M lacks experience there. However, MLive also said that there might be three or four defensive ends used at one time, so maybe consistent pass pressure is still a possibility.

Former 2017 All-Big Ten Third Team honoree and potential Butkus Award finalist Khaleke Hudson will anchor the linebacking corps, and All-Big Ten First Teamer Lavert Hill is back at cornerback after being part of a lockdown tandem in 2018 with David Long, who is now in the NFL. There’s some good talent there, but by the time U of M faces the Buckeyes, it’ll need to be peaking.

MSU’s slogan this year is “Chase the Moment,” and that’s appropriate because they’ll be chasing that for another year. However, for U of M, it’s been chasing that moment since 2004 when it won its last Big Ten title.

Now it’s finally here again and the Wolverines looked primed and ready to capitalize on it.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.