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First look: Michigan State’s youngsters led to big turnaround from 2016

Michigan State junior L.J. Scott led the Spartans’ rushing attack with 183 carries for 788 yards. (Al Goldis / AP)
Michigan State junior L.J. Scott led the Spartans’ rushing attack with 183 carries for 788 yards. (Al Goldis / AP)

The food was better at this year’s Michigan State football banquet. So was the morale.

Winning will do that, and few teams turned it around this year like the Spartans, who were one of the most improved teams in the nation.

At last year’s banquet, the Spartans washed down a 3-9 season with water and “a couple of pieces of mac and cheese or whatever,” according to linebacker Joe Bachie.

Now Bachie is MSU’s defensive MVP and part of a youth movement that helped coach Mark Dantonio to a 9-3 record and a Dec. 28 date with Washington State in the Holiday Bowl.

“I really respect the job that our football team did – the grind, the grit that we showed really from Day One,” Dantonio said. “Not just in the games but really coming back and starting the process over and doing it the hard way.”

That meant using true freshmen – 13 of them, the most in Dantonio’s 11-year tenure. MSU has only three full-time senior starters, and two-thirds of the roster is comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

Those youngsters kept their composure when it mattered most, as MSU was 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. (The Cougars were 4-0 in one-possession games.)

Two sophomores – one on each side of the ball – led the way. Quarterback Brian Lewerke, a 6-foot-3, 212-pounder, emerged as one of the top dual threats in the Big Ten Conference.

Lewerke is completing 58.8 percent of his passes for 2,580 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His 433 rushing yards rank second among Big Ten quarterbacks.

The Spartans are a run-first team (499 rushes, 402 passes), with 229-pound junior L.J. Scott leading the way with 183 carries for 788 yards.

Lewerke has thrown at least 20 completions to four receivers, but seldom goes deep – MSU has just one completion all year for more than 40 yards. Felton Davis leads the wideouts with 51 catches for 655 yards and eight TDs.

The biggest surprise came on defense. The Spartans ranked fourth overall in the Big Ten (297 yards per game) and second against the run (101.3 ypg).

The 6-2, 233-pound Bachie leads the team in tackles with 93, and has 8.5 tackles for loss.

In the Holiday Bowl, WSU quarterback Luke Falk must be mindful of another sophomore, safety David Dowell, a first-team all-conference selection who leads the Big Ten with five picks. Cornerback Josiah Scott was a third-team all-Big Ten pick.

That talent was tested all year in a season of ups and downs. Like WSU, the Spartans endured their share of blowout losses, including a 38-18 home loss to Notre Dame and a 48-3 shellacking at Ohio State.

To their credit, the Spartans recovered nicely from both. The loss to the Irish was their last nonconference game, but the Spartans recovered to win four consecutive close games against Iowa (17-10), Michigan (14-10), Minnesota (30-27) and Indiana (17-9).

MSU’s toughest loss of the season – 39-31 in triple overtime at Northwestern – gave way to its biggest win, 27-24 over No. 9 Penn State.

The deflating loss to the Buckeyes cost them a shot at the conference title, but the Spartans recovered with wins over Maryland (17-7) and Rutgers (40-7).

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