By NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan State endured one of college football’s most surprising falls last season.
Bowling Green, the Spartans’ opponent in this weekend’s season opener, can relate.
After three straight trips to the Mid-American Conference title game — and two titles — Bowling Green stumbled to a 4-8 season in 2016. It was like the MAC version of Michigan State’s tumble to 3-9 after the Spartans had reached college football’s playoff in 2015.
“It was a very humbling experience,” Falcons coach Mike Jinks said.
Michigan State certainly knows all about that. The Spartans appeared to have established themselves as a consistent member of the Big Ten’s elite before their season fell apart last year following a 2-0 start. Then came an offseason in which four players were dismissed from the team amid sexual assault allegations.
Michigan State faces a long road back to respectability, both on and off the field. It goes without saying that coach Mark Dantonio and his team are eager to take the field this year.
“I don’t really care who we play in the first game. It’s good to have a first game,” Dantonio said this week. “The timing is right. Our football team is right for it. The mentality of our football team is right. And that’s what I’m concerned about. Mostly what I’m concerned about is our football team.”
Bowling Green’s uncharacteristic plunge last season began with a 77-10 loss at Ohio State in the opener. Later in September, the Falcons gave up 77 points again in a loss at Memphis.
Toward the end, though, things began to click. Bowling Green won its final three games of the season.
“When you look at them as an entire team throughout the season, I think they got better as the season progressed,” Dantonio said. “Lost some close games in the middle of the season and then won some games at the end of the season, some close games along the way and then also had a couple of teams that they handled pretty easily.”
Here are a few more things to watch when Michigan State hosts Bowling Green on Saturday:
The Spartans will start Brian Lewerke at quarterback after his 2016 season was cut short by a broken leg. He appeared in four games last year as a redshirt freshman.
James Morgan returns for Bowling Green after starting seven games last year. He threw for 16 touchdowns but had 15 interceptions.
The strength of Michigan State’s team should be in the backfield, where LJ Scott ran for 994 yards last year and Gerald Holmes contributed five touchdowns on the ground.
“You better tackle. Scott, Holmes, they’re really good football players,” Jinks said. “They’ve got some youth that they’re concerned about on the offensive line, but they look the part, and those guys do a great job of coming downhill.”
Bowling Green has developed a reputation as an up-tempo team that runs a lot of plays and can tire out defenses. The Falcons averaged 79 plays per game last year while their opponents averaged only 74, but that didn’t translate to an advantage on the scoreboard.
The Falcons must replace Fred Coppet, who rushed for 1,030 yards as a senior. Returning, however, are Josh Cleveland and Donovan Wilson, who both ran for over 500 in 2016.
The kicking game has always been important for Dantonio, and the Spartans must replace Michael Geiger. Dantonio says that responsibility will fall to redshirt freshman Matt Coghlin.
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