Showdown in the Desert: Michigan State vs. Arizona State Preview and Prediction

If you would have asked Spartan fans to predict this game 1 month ago, I think the survey would have been a resounding chorus of confidence that we’d come out of Tempe 2-0.  If you survey Spartan fans today, I don’t think the confidence is at nearly the same level.  Michigan State, in typical Michigan State fashion, squeaked out their home opener against Mountain West opponent Utah State last weekend, making Spartan fans slightly less optimistic about the outlook of the 2018 season as we we’re before kickoff.  If not for a late drive led by the arm and moxie of Brian Lewerke, we’d be 0-1 and fearing another disastrous season with 2016 in the not too distant past.

On the other side, Arizona State feasted on it’s week 1 opponent, dominating lowly UTSA under new head coach Herm Edwards, who is back to coaching in the college ranks for the first time since his brief stint as the DB coach for San Jose State in the late 80s.  Herm brings not only youthful energy to Tempe despite his age, but a ton of experience to the sidelines after 8 years as an NFL head coach.

According to betonline.ag the current spread as of 9/6 shows MSU as a 6 point favorite for Saturday night’s match up.  As mentioned Michigan State closed out a tough victory with a 38-31 win over Utah State, in a game where the defense looked lost against the up-tempo Aggie aerial attack.  While the defense controlled the Aggie ground game (1.1 ypc) quarterback Jordan Love had a day with 319 yards on 44 attempts.  This is the biggest reason for pause among us optimists.  While we did pick off Love twice, including Joe Bachie’s game sealer on the final drive, the defense looked unprepared for their passing attack that utilized a lot of quick routes to the flats where our linebackers weren’t quick enough to get to.  The fault lies on a combination of scheme and player responsibility.  Even casual football fans had to be confused watching us march out traditional 4-3 looks against a spread offense throwing the ball nearly 50 times, to beat Arizona State we must adjust our base defense to a nickle look to bring in an extra defensive back like Xavier Henderson, Matt Morrissey, or Kalon Gervin.  While the defense struggled, the offense was, all in all, productive.  The offensive line play left a lot to be desired, failing to open holes for LJ Scott (especially in the first half) and getting burned on simple speed rushes around the edge in pass protection.  The running game as a whole struggled to get going, and really disappointed around the goal line where we missed 2 easy chances from 1st and goal opportunities.  The passing game though, was in mid-season form.  Felton Davis had a couple massive catches in clutch situations, Cody White ran crisp routes and looks like he’s taken a big step forward since his freshman campaign, and Darrell Stewart looks productive in the Keyshawn Martin role from years ago.  Brian Lewerke is the player we hoped he would be, showing the moxie needed from a B1G quarterback by producing where nothing seems available, and giving his talented receivers a chance to make plays.

Arizona State, unlike MSU, cruised from the get-go in their week 1 victory, as they scored 14 points in the first 2 minutes and never looked back.  While they get set at the line of scrimmage quickly, they do take most of the play-clock to snap the ball (unlike Utah State).  This was something head coach Herm Edwards addressed after the game, implying they want to play faster, but still have some growing pains to get through in the offensive structure.  The offense is led by quarterback Manny Wilkins, who has a live arm, and is athletic enough to make you think on read options.  While Wilkins is the headman, the offense runs through star receiver N’Keal Harry, who had 6 catches for 140 yards and 2 TDs, including one where he caught the ball on the left sideline, evaded 5 tacklers, reversed field, and scored on the right pylon after running about 100 yards.  It’s worth noting that no other receiver had more than 2 catches, and 23 yards in their first game.  The defense played fast and looked a lot like a typical Spartan defense where you’d see 4-5 players in on every tackle.  A PAC12 team that is built on simply out-scoring their opponents, they don’t rely much on this group, but it’s a unit that plays fast, plays together, and can force key turnovers when needed.

Keys to the Game

N’Keal Harry vs. Justin Layne

This match up is ultimately going to decide the game, even if Josiah Scott was healthy, Layne would certainly line up against the 6’4 Harry.  If Justin Layne can play Harry physical and limit him to under 75 yards, the Spartans will walk out of Tempe 2-0.  If Harry wins this match up and makes a couple plays like he did in week 1, we might be in trouble.

MSU Offensive Line vs. ASU Pass Rush

Michigan State was without LT Cole Chewins last week who had started the previous 16 games on the offensive line.  This was a huge blow, as Utah State was consistently getting pressure around the edge even with a number of different combinations used across the line.  Chewins is practicing this week but we’ve yet to hear if he’s ready to go, meanwhile ASU suffocated UTSA with 10 sacks in week 1.  If ASU can get to the QB even half as much Lewerke will have a long day.

Prediction

While this is a home game for ASU, I’ve heard reports of as many as 15,000 Spartan fans in attendance for this game, which, in a stadium that holds just over 50,000, makes quite an impact on the home-field advantage.  Brian Lewerke, a graduate of Pinnacle High School which is just 25 miles from Tempe, will be coming home and will certainly want to show-out in-front of his family and friends.  While this match up does make me more nervous than it did before the season kicked off, I do believe in our coaching staff to make the necessary adjustments to put our defense in better positions against another up-tempo spread attack.  Our offense will get the running game working, and while Lewerke will make his big plays down the stretch when needed, we won’t need to rely solely on his arm to take home a win in another high-scoring game.

Michigan State wins but does not cover, 38-35 MSU.

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