It seems like a lifetime ago when Michigan State was in the middle of its worst season in Mark Dantonio’s 12-year tenure, finishing the year 3-9, with just two wins coming in the FBS. Last year, the Spartans flipped the script, going 10-3, including a road win at Michigan, a win against Penn State and a 42-17 demolition of Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.
The Spartans open up their 2018 campaign on Friday night against the Utah State Aggies, who like MSU, have taken a similar path since 2016.
The Aggies had a dreadful 2016 season, mirroring MSU’s record of 3-9, but turned it around last season, going 6-7, losing to New Mexico State in the Arizona Bowl.
Friday’s contest marks the first-ever meeting between the Spartans and the Aggies. MSU, which boasts a streak of 19 straight wins in its home opener starting back in 1999 against Oregon, holds the fifth-longest active streak in the country. USU will head into Spartan Stadium looking to be the first Group of Five program to knock off the Spartans since 2009 when the Butch Jones-led Central Michigan Chippewas did it.
The Aggies went on the road last year to face another Big Ten foe in Wisconsin and after being tied at the half, got blown out 59-10. Over the last three seasons, Utah State hasn’t had the best success against Power Five opponents. Facing the Badgers and Wake Forest last year, USC in 2016 and Utah and Washington in 2015, the Aggies have lost its last five games against Power Fivers by a combined total of 205-58.
While the Spartans are a hefty 23-point favorite against the Aggies, sixth-year head coach Matt Wells feels his team’s experience from Madison last year should give them increased confidence coming to East Lansing.
“The difference with us is we don’t have nearly as many first-year starters going into the game as we did last year,” Wells said. “Now, does that lead to better play and more points and all that stuff? Obviously, that remains to be seen. But, we’re not nearly as inexperienced going into the game as we were last year.”
Utah State, like MSU, also returns 18 starters on both sides of the ball, including Preseason All-Mountain West TE Dax Raymond, who was also named to the John Mackey Award Watch List, given to the nation’s most outstanding tight end.
Sophomore Jordan Love returns under center to lead an up-tempo offense after throwing for 1,631 yards and eight touchdowns and rushing for 165 more yards and two scores.
“We practiced against that,” Dantonio said of the Aggies’ up-tempo offense. “We provide that type of up-tempo type of practice, really by running three huddles in our defense.”
Love loses his do-it-all tailback this year in Lajuan Hunt, who led USU last season with 828 yards and 11 touchdowns. Hunt didn’t just do it on the ground as he was a major contributor out of the backfield, bringing in 30 catches for 187 yards and another TD.
After a battle waged on at tailback between converted wide receiver Gerold Bright and JUCO transfer Darwin Thompson, Thompson was named the starter after an impressive offseason. Thompson, a junior college All-American, rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and eight TDs last year at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.
“ I think he’s the guy that’s got explosiveness and things of that nature,” Dantonio said of the former JUCO standout Thompson. “I’m sure they’ll come here ready to play, so it will be exciting.”
The Aggies ranked No. 56 nationally last year in rushing yards per game with 171, while the Spartans were superb defensively in the run game, giving up just 95 yards per outing, which ranked second in the country.
“They are big, strong and physical,” Wells said of the Spartans’ front seven. “To see where they ranked coming out of last year against the teams they did it against is pretty impressive. They’re deep and they’re talented. It’ll be maybe the best we see all year.”
Ron’quavion Tarver, the Aggies’ top receiver from a season ago, returns after catching 48 passes for 569 yards and seven TDs. The Aggies added former USC WR Jalen Greene, a big target with great downfield speed and one year remaining of eligibility, who will be a great compliment on the outside to Tarver.
Defensively, Utah State gave up 27 points per game last year but allowed 39 points per game in its seven losses last year. The Aggies always found their way around the football, causing 29 turnovers (16 fumbles, 13 interceptions) and will be anchored by their senior linebacker Suli Tamaivena, who led the team with 111 tackles and three sacks in 2017.
Kickoff for Friday’s game is set for 7:01 p.m. and will be televised on BTN. For the first time in WDBM Sports history, Impact will provide a live broadcast of Friday’s game from Spartan Stadium, with the pregame show starting at 6:30 p.m. Tune in to mixlr.com/wdbmsports for the live action!