3 Things To Watch For In Utah State Opener

3 Things To Watch For In Utah State Opener

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3 Things To Watch For In Utah State Opener

What are the three things that might be most important for Spartan fans to keep an eye on during Friday night’s season opener against Utah State?

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HOW DOES THE RUSHING ATTACK LOOK?

While Michigan State’s overall accomplishments in 2017 might end up being as important as any over the course of the Mark Dantonio Era, the team’s finishes across the individual statistical categories were not all that impressive.

And the running game – one of the hallmarks of the program ever since Dantonio took over – was underwhelming.

Consider that the Spartans finished the year 7th in the Big Ten with an average of 167 yards per game.

The 10-3 record seems extra special when looking at that relatively weak performance on the ground.

Can Michigan State pound the ball in 2018 with more force and more success?

If Michigan State wants to have a truly special season, it may come down to the very basics – the ability to pound the ball.

Utah State had a weak rushing defense last season – the Aggies finished 9th in the Mountain West after giving up 217 yards per game on the ground.

The Spartans have veterans up and down the offensive line and LJ Scott came back for his senior season for a reason.

If Michigan State isn’t able to push the 200-yard mark on the ground for the night, it won’t be reason to panic – but it’d be a disappointing start to the season in one of the key areas of focus for the 2018 Spartans.

CAN ANYONE OTHER THAN WILLEKES GET TO THE QUARTERBACK?

A year ago, few people knew who Kenny Willikes was.

After a bit of a breakout season that featured 7 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss, Willikes is going to have to improve on last year’s performance without the ability to sneak up on anyone.

The question for Michigan State will be whether or not anyone else on the defensive line – particularly on the opposite edge – can also get to the quarterback in 2018.

Jacob Panasiuk and Jack Camper have turned heads this preseason – Panasiuk after a solid season and Camper after being fitted for his first set of practice gear.

Mark Dantonio has had a smirk and a smile on face when Panasiuk’s name has come up over the summer.

It’s clear that he thinks Panasiuk can become the next guy to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks and help the Spartans continue to climb back out of the 2016 sack-total basement (11 in 2016, 28 last season).

Can Camper also provide some much-needed power and push on the edge?

Utah State has five returning offensive linemen this season.

Four out of the five are seniors and they’re all massive –

  • Senior tackle Roman Andrus – 6’4, 310 pounds.
  • Senior guard Rob Castaneda – 6’4″, 305 pounds.
  • Senior center Quin Ficklin – 6’2″, 300 pounds.
  • Junior guard Moroni Iniguez – 6’2″, 320 pounds.
  • Senior tackle Sean Taylor – 6’5″, 300 pounds.

If Michigan State expects to compete for the Big Ten Championship – and more – there has to be more of an ability to get to the quarterback.

Let’s keep an eye on Panasiuk and Camper on Friday night.

They don’t need to set any records – but can they show us that they can get back there and put the guy down?

CAN THE RETURN GAME SHOW SOME SPARK?

Take a look at last season’s stats for kickoff and punt returns –

Kickoff returns – 21.4 yards, 7th in the Big Ten.

Punt returns – 3.9 yards yards, 13th in the Big Ten.

Zero touchdowns.

If Michigan State wants to compete for the Big Ten Championship – and beyond – this season, it’s going to need to come up with some magic in the return game.

Can the Spartans show a little spark in the opener against the Aggies?

Spartans who seem to be the likeliest to generate that magic are Connor Heyward, Darrell Stewart, Laress, Nelson, and maybe even Cody White.

Perhaps Cam Chambers can provide some energy.

By the end of the 2017 season, Heyward had sort of taken control of the return game with strong performances against Minnesota and Penn State – he returned three kicks for 115 yards against the Gophers and four kicks against Penn State for 100 yards.

Over the whole season, however, Heyward averaged 21.8 yards on 20 kickoff returns.

Darrell Stewart averaged 25.3 yards on six kickoff returns.

Here’s the most glaring stat from 2017 when looking at the overall return game – zero touchdowns.

Would you believe that Michigan State hasn’t returned a punt for a touchdown since Keshawn Martin took a punt back against Wisconsin in 2011?

Would you believe that Michigan State hasn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since RJ Shelton opened up the game against Penn State with a return for six in 2014?

The overall “return” game (combined average of the kickoff and punt return game) over the last five years has finished each season this way:

2017 – 7th in the Big Ten.

2016 – 12th in the Big Ten.

2015 – 13th in the Big Ten.

2014 – 8th in the Big Ten.

2013 – 12th (last at the time) in the Big Ten.

Michigan State doesn’t need to explode on Friday night and return seven or eight kicks for touchdowns against Utah State – but can the Spartans demonstrate that there might be some burst in the return game?

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