Spartans look to start 2019 strong against Tulsa

You can listen to the action live on 88.9 FM as Michigan State kicks off 2019

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Joe Bachie/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

Aidan Hunt, Football Beat Reporter

EAST LANSING, Mich. – No. 18 Michigan State opens its 2019 season Friday night as the Spartans host Tulsa at Spartan Stadium. On the heels of a disappointing 2018 season, which ended in a bowl defeat at the hands of Oregon, along with a 7-6 record, the Spartans now look to bounce back with a newly formed offense and a residually strong defense.

Michigan State’s defense was the silver lining of a lackluster 2018 season, finishing the year as the No. 1 rushing defense in the country and third in defensive efficiency behind national championship opponents Clemson and Alabama.

Returning eight starters on the defensive side of the ball, including preseason All-American prospects and team captains Joe Bachie and Kenny Willekes, the Spartans are poised to make another strong campaign stopping opposing offenses from making it into their endzone.

Kenny Willekes/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

“We don’t want to let people run the ball on us, people have not been able to do that recently,” head coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. “We need to continue that trend.”

One of the biggest weaknesses for Michigan State last season was the offensive line, which dealt with a number of injuries throughout the season including to center Matt Allen and left tackle Cole Chewins.

The Spartans’ most prominent recruit from the 2019 class, four-star offensive tackle Devontae Dobbs, is slated to make a name for himself already as a freshman and is expected by many to make his debut for the Spartans soon, but was not listed on the depth chart for the game against Tulsa released Tuesday morning.

Dantonio revealed Tuesday that Chewins has been struggling with back issues and that junior AJ Arcuri will start Friday in his place at left tackle. This is the fifth-consecutive year that a different Michigan State left tackle will start game one.

The 2019 season will be the Spartans’ first without LJ Scott at running back since their 2014 Rose Bowl-winning season. Michigan State’s inability to run the ball last season was very uncharacteristic for them, with only one 100+ yard rushing game coming against Maryland. The spotlight on the offensive side of the ball will be on how the offensive line can make room and space for the running backs

Brian Lewerke/Photo: Riley James

“La’Darius [Jefferson] did a nice job,” Dantonio said. “I think he’s had a great fall camp, I think Connor Heyward has as well, Elijah Collins has as well. I’ve seen good things and it takes time, these guys are all relatively young players.

“This is their opportunity to make some strides and go from there.”

Tulsa’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme focuses primarily on pass defense, giving the young Spartan running backs opportunities to capitalize on Tulsa’s defensive weakness. After his shoulder issues forced him to share playing time at the end of the season with Rocky Lombardi, senior quarterback Brian Lewerke will start Friday night.

Tulsa’s five defensive back system will preview the same defense Lewerke and the Spartans are likely to see against Arizona State in two weeks’ time.

Due to the large rotation of wide receivers last season due to injuries, Lewerke is familiar with his three passing targets, Cody White, Darrell Stewart, and Jalen Nailor. Stewart and Nailor will be returning kickoffs this season with Nailor returning punts as well.

Michigan State and Tulsa will kick off on Friday night at 7 p.m. at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing and will be broadcast live on Impact 88.9 FM in the Lansing area.

Contact Aidan Hunt at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TheAidanHunt.