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Late drive helps No. 11 Michigan State escape tough challenge from Utah State

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If there’s anybody who probably doesn’t mind winning ugly, it’s Mark Dantonio. Of course, that doesn’t mean he will like it after the fact.

No. 11 Michigan State looked rusty on both sides of the ball and nowhere near the kind of team their ranking suggested during their season-opener against Utah State on Friday night, needing a few key plays down the stretch to hold on for a 38-31 win. It was surprising to see given how many starters returned from last year’s 10-3 squad but also had quite a bit to do with how pesky the Aggies were on the big stage too.

Though he was unable to pull off the upset and trailed off after halftime, USU quarterback Jordan Love was impressive given the environment and wound up throwing for 281 yards (one interception) and was just about the lone rushing threat too with a touchdown on the ground. Utah State mounted a trio of 70+ yard touchdown drives in the game — including the game’s opener that proved the team was more than ready to play. Five different receivers had more than 20 yards through the air and tailback Darwin Thompson did find the end zone twice despite the run game being pretty much bottled up.

Perhaps just as impressive was Matt Wells’ defense on the night. In addition to creating quite a bit of pressure, Gaje Ferguson hauled in a pick-six in the second half that led to a 10-point swing in just 14 seconds on the clock. In the end though, it just wasn’t quite enough as Utah State nearly pulled off the top 25 upset on the road they’ve threatened to win several times the past decade.

As for the Spartans, there were a few bright spots on defense like Joe Bachie (11 tackles) grabbing game-sealing interception and Khari Willis coming down with another pick in the first half. It was still not quite enough to be encouraged if you were Dantonio or a member of the MSU faithful, especially given the number of veterans in action on the night and the fact that they just recorded just one sack against a Group of Five opponent.

Quarterback Brian Lewerke was far from sharp despite being labeled by many as a dark horse Heisman candidate entering 2018. Though his numbers were solid with 287 yards and two scores through the air, the pick-six came on an awful decision and he never could quite find a rhythm. If anything, he was bailed out quite a bit by his receivers — particularly Felton Davis with 69 yards and a touchdown.

Running back LJ Scott rushed for 84 yards and contributed quite a bit in the passing game as well but never could quite bust out the big run.

You’ll hear quite a bit of ‘A win is a win’ coming out of the Michigan State locker room this week but the bottom line is that the team very much escaped a close call on Friday. If the Spartans are to truly challenge Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State in their division and work their way into Playoff contention, then a much better effort is needed going forward.

Utah State hanging around with No. 11 Michigan State entering halftime

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Mark Dantonio’s face seems to naturally look unhappy but it’s safe to say he really was feeling that way when he watched Michigan State give up an opening 75 yard touchdown drive and fail to muster much energy at all on offense in the first few minutes of the season. Luckily his team rallied to grab a few momentum-building plays in the second quarter in order to take a 20-14 lead into the locker room at halftime against a pesky Utah State squad at Spartan Stadium.

Aggies signal-caller Jordan Love certainly came to play on the big stage and seemed to catch the home team’s defense by surprise by using a nice mix of tempo and precision passing over the middle of the field. Evoking a few shades of Chucky Keaton from back in the day for USU given his calm demeanor in a hostile environment, Love finished the first half 14-of-21 for 181 yards and an interception. He was also able to escape pressure with his legs and added another 10 yards and a touchdown on the ground as well.

It was not quite the same performance out of opposite number Brian Lewerke, who many think could turn into one of (if not the) best QB’s in the Big Ten. His numbers seemed good (190 yards, two TDs) but the junior wasn’t quite as crisp with his passing as expected and he also fumbled in a rather bizarre way to avoid a sack. Tailback LJ Scott shouldered most of the load and looked like a workhorse runner in the first half with 12 carries for 36 yards. The senior also contributed in the passing game with some good blocks and two receptions for over 50 yards.

While the Spartans offense did not quite find a rhythm, they did feed off their defense in the second quarter to get a little momentum going. Khari Willis pulled down an interception to turn the momentum defensively midway through the quarter and then Scott promptly pulled in a screen pass and took it to the door step of the goal line on the very next offensive play. Lewerke eventually found Cody White over the middle for the touchdown and that score seemed to give the crowd a bit of a sigh of relief.

Utah State answered right back with a 72 yard drive as the teams traded scores though in a rather back-and-forth second frame that featured three lead changes. The Aggies were in a similar position last season when they hung around with Wisconsin on the road for a half but eventually were blown out after the break.

Could that happen again in East Lansing? The Spartans certainly hope so but it’s pretty clear they’ll need to clear up quite a bit at halftime if that’s to be the case or else we could be in store for our first major upset of the season given the way both sides are playing in this one.

Alabama tops preseason Super 16 poll from FWAA and National Football Foundation

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Another day, another hour, and another top spot in a preseason poll for the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Alabama was the most popular pick for the top spot in the preseason Super 16 Poll from the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation. Alabama received 36 first-place votes to stay comfortably ahead of No. 2 Clemson. The Tigers received 14 first-place votes and Georgia and Michigan State each picked up one first-place vote.

The voters certainly are leaning toward Wisconsin as the top Big Ten team. The Badgers ranked fourth overall, two spots ahead of Ohio State. If the playoff were determined by this preseason poll, Alabama would play Wisconsin and Clemson would face Georgia. Washington would be the first team out. The Huskies coming in at No. 5 likely means a good number of voters believe Washington will open the season with a win against Auburn in Atlanta in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game as well, and that would certainly create a playoff-or-bust season for Washington out of the gates.

One team that has received some good offseason buzz that failed to crack the Super 16 was West Virginia. A trendy pick in the Big 12 for some, the Mountaineers were the first team out of this particular preseason poll.

No Group of Five programs made the Super 16 cut, although UCF, Boise State, and San Diego State all received at least one point in the voting.

Here is how the preseason Super 16 poll breaks down:

  1. Alabama (36 first-place votes)
  2. Clemson (14)
  3. Georgia
  4. Wisconsin
  5. Washington
  6. Ohio State
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Miami
  9. Auburn
  10. Penn State
  11. Michigan State (1)
  12. Notre Dame
  13. Michigan
  14. Stanford
  15. USC
  16. TCU

In the interest of full disclosure, three College Football Talk contributors are voting members in the Super 16 Poll; myself, Bryan Fischer and Zach Barnett). The poll is made up of members of the FWAA and College Football Hall of Famers with an emphasis on geographic balance. New polls will be updated every Monday this season, with the exception of the post-Week 1 poll, which will be released on Tuesday, September 4.

Days after leaving Michigan State, WR Trishton Jackson is heading to Syracuse

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It did not take long for wide receiver Trishton Jackson to formally announce what is next for his college football career. Just days after announcing his decision to leave Michigan State, Jackson says he is heading to Syracuse to continue his college football journey.

Jackson announced his decision to transfer to Syracuse on Twitter Monday afternoon.

“Forever grateful for the opportunities God has given me,” Jackson said. “Blessed to announce my new home, Syracuse University.”

Jackson will have to sit out the 2018 season due to NCAA transfer rules. Jackson will have two years of eligibility left to use at Syracuse once he becomes eligible again in 2019.

Jackson was Michigan State’s seventh-leading receiver with 12 receptions for 143 yards in 12 games last season.

Michigan State WR Trishton Jackson leaving Spartans

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For the second time this week, Michigan State is losing a wide receiver to an upcoming transfer. Trishton Jackson, coming off a sophomore season, has announced he will transfer to another school to continue his football career.

Jackson made the announcement on his Twitter account with a brief word of thanks to the Michigan State coaches and teammates. It is unknown at this time where Jackson will be heading next.

Jackson was seventh on the team with 143 receiving yards in 2017 with 12 receptions in 12 games. With a good number of receivers above him slated to return next fall, the opportunity to have much impact in the passing game may be found elsewhere before it will be available in East Lansing.

Jackson will have to sit out the 2018 college football season due to NCAA transfer rules if he transfers to another FBS program, but he will be eligible to play immediately at a lower-division program.

It was reported earlier this week that Hunter Rison, the son of Andre Rison, will be transferring out of the Spartans program.