Spartans look to remain unbeaten in the desert

After starting the 2018 season with a narrow 38-31 win over Utah State, Michigan State faces an even bigger test on the road in Tempe, Ariz. against Arizona State. The Sun Devils, coming off a season-opening win of their own, and the Spartans will meet Saturday for the first time since 1986.

Michigan State’s narrow win over the Aggies was the third consecutive opening game where the Spartans struggled against a widely-believed inferior opponent (2016 vs. Furman, 2017 vs. Bowling Green). Arizona State appears to be a bigger challenge than Utah State after their 49-7 win over Texas-San Antonio in Week 1, especially with the offensive weapons they are bringing into this upcoming game.

The Sun Devils’ senior quarterback Manny Wilkins went 16-for-24 with 237 yards and four touchdowns in Week 1. His favorite target was junior N’Keal Harry whose six receptions were good for 140 yards and two touchdowns. For a Spartan defense that gave up 319 yards in the air against Utah State, Harry is the player the Michigan State secondary needs to watch the whole game.

Justin Layne was able to hold Aggies wide receiver Ron’quavion Tarver to just 29 yards last week, stepping up at cornerback while Josiah Scott remains injured. Layne and safety Khari Willis were the only secondary threats the Spartans had; against a team like Arizona State, and especially a receiver like Harry, Michigan State might have their hands full if the rest of the pass defense cannot be proactive and improve from Week 1.

Contrary to the secondary’s struggles, Michigan State’s run defense impressed, allowing only 25 yards on the ground. Though the Spartans only had four tackles for loss, including two sacks from Kenny Willekes, Joe Bachie and co. were able to prevent Utah State from getting anywhere too far from the line of scrimmage. The Sun Devils’ Eno Benjamin, who had 131 yards last week, looks to be mismatched by a run defense ranked second-best in the country last season.

Arizona State runs a 3-3-5 defense, common in the pass-heavy Pac-12. Brian Lewerke threw for 287 yards against Utah State, but his three favorite receivers Felton Davis III, Cody White and Darrell Stewart Jr. will be well-covered with five defensive backs watching them. The Sun Devils tallied nine sacks last week against Texas-San Antonio and with the way Lewerke was being pressured in Week 1, the offensive line needs to be on their best game.

Michigan State will have to look to run the ball despite LJ Scott struggling last week, rushing 84 yards on 23 carries. Connor Heyward was a silver lining for the Spartans against Utah State, taking five rushes for 42 yards including two important touchdowns. How Scott and Heyward will split the backfield remains unknown, but they will be the key to a Michigan State victory.

Despite starting left tackle Cole Chewins practicing this week after missing the Utah State game, it is still unknown whether he will start in Tempe or if it will be Luke Campbell instead. Chewins was missed against the Aggies as Lewerke was sacked three times, one of which was a fumble. Campbell, who played 12 games at right tackle last year, is still getting adjusted to the left tackle role while Chewins’ status is unknown.

One of the two teams meeting in Tempe will leave the game with their first loss of the season. Kickoff on Saturday is scheduled for 10:45 p.m. EST and the game will be televised on ESPN.