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2018 MAC Football Game Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas at Michigan State Spartans

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What can the Chips hope for against the vaunted Spartans?

Central Michigan v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

After meandering to a 1-3 (0-1 MAC) record, the Central Michigan Chippewas face their toughest test of the season so far on Saturday when they take on the #18/#21 Michigan State Spartans on the road. After coming off of a lackluster win against FCS Maine at home, MSU looks to be a tough test for the rebuilding Chippewas.

The Spartans (2-1, 1-0 B1G) have been more or less their usual selves in 2018 with an offense that is sound (but not overwhelming) and a defense that limits big plays. After winning a 38-31 scare at home against Utah State, MSU fell to a resurgent Arizona State team 16-13 in the desert. The team responded with a 35-21 victory at Indiana in Big Ten play to get the taste of the upset out of their mouths.

What the Chips should know about MSU is that they are going to be committed to the ground game with 109 rushing attempts for 359 yards in three games. Backs L.J. Scott and Connor Heyward are the workhorses with 200 rushing yards and 132 receiving yards between them. However, the Spartans aren’t terribly efficient on the ground with 3.3 yards per carry this season.

Quarterback Brian Lewerke is a veteran in this offense and has gotten off to a strong start in 2018 with 814 passing yards, five touchdowns, and has shown himself to be a threat in the running game with 28 carries. However, his decision making has been suspect this season as his four interceptions and eight sacks indicate. Cody White is the focal point of the passing game as he has hauled in 18 receptions for 260 yards and a pair of scores.

Defensively, the Spartans have been phenomenal against the run as they have held opponents to 1.1 yards per carry while the pass defense has been opportunistic with five picks on the season. Linebacker Joe Bachie is a playmaker at the second level with 30 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, a sack and an interception while Andrew Dowell and Kenny Willekes are great disruptors with nine TFLs and five sacks combined. The unit also shows up big on the downs that matter as they held opponents to under 40% on third and fourth down while only allowing four red zone touchdowns in nine attempts.

Special teams have also been a strength for Michigan State as Matt Coghlin is a perfect 5-5 on field goals, Jake Hartbarger has been averaging a monstrous 48.8 yards per punt, and opponents’ average starting field position is the 26-yard line following a kickoff. As far as the return game goes, White can be dangerous on punt return while Heyward and Darrell Stewart are explosive on kickoff return with an average of 26.4 yards per return.

For Central Michigan to be competitive in this game, it has to limit MSU’s running game and put the Spartans in situations where they have to throw, which is a tall order for a defense that has allowed 4.5 yards per carry this season. Mike Danna and Nathan Brisson-Fast need to be disruptive with their 9.5 TFLs on the season to create problems for Michigan State. If the home team decides to throw it, Malik Fountain and the rest of the defense has to make timely stops to get off the field.

CMU hasn’t ran the ball well all season long (3.1 yards per carry) and it’s not going to on Saturday against an elite run defense. Tommy Lazzaro is going to have to make excellent decisions in the ball to keep the Chips in the game, but his 52.6 completion percentage and two interceptions on the year can be problematic in a game like this. The game rests on his shoulders offensively and he has to show out on this big stage. 38-24 Spartans with the Chips rallying late.