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2019 Pinstripe Bowl Preview: Michigan State vs Wake Forest

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In which two fiddler crabs play a football game in a mostly-empty baseball stadium

Wake Forest v Boston College
“Here, take this bowl bid” “No I don’t really want - fine then”
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Well hi there!

Been a while since I fired up the ol’ article-printin’ machine on behalf of Michigan State football, but it’s bowl season, so let’s see what respectable, exciting matchup I can regale you with this year!

It’s The One In Yankee Stadium At The End Of December

Ah. Yes. It’s 2019, meaning MSU is in its third painfully disappointing year out of four with no end in sight. A woebegone 6-6 record shoved MSU into the bracket of games you leave on, not while decorating or cooking for Christmas, but as you manage the mental minuet of when to take the tree and lights down and admit that another year has gone by in just the blink of an eye and the fun part of winter is over and now it’s just going to be gray for the next three months. Good thing we have this high quality college football to warm our hearts, so let’s get into it.

What Is A Wake Forest?

A fair question, since according to Winsipedia, only four B1G teams have ever played Wake Forest in football; as you’d expect, former conference colleague Maryland has the most exposure to the Demon Deacons (top 5 mascot in all of sports) by a mile. Indiana split a home-and-home with them in 2015-16; Northwestern’s also managed a split in four all-time meetings, and the Deacs swept two matchups with Rutgers in the 1990s.

Wake comes into this matchup with an 8-4 record, though that did include a 5-0 start before scuffling a bit down the stretch. They lost a then-confusing, now-understandable shootout with Louisville, stumbled against Virginia Tech, got mulched by Clemson, and finished up with an OT loss to a pretty bad Syracuse team.

When Michigan State Has The Ball

Feel free to hop up for a drink or a sandwich, but don’t take too long. By whatever metric you care to use, MSU’s offense was B A D this season - though actually not quite as bad as last year, which made their persistent inability to put points on the board all the more infuriating.

Senior QB Brian Lewerke helms an offense that has been without its top WR Darrell Stewart Jr. for roughly half the season, and has once again played a season-long game of musical chairs on the offensive line; MSU will likely be starting two true freshmen OL once again. There are some bright spots - WR Cody White has been great since taking over Stewart’s slot position, and RB Elijah Collins took control of the tailback position in such a way that three other running backs transferred over the course of the season. Having burned his redshirt, the coaching staff really needs to make better use of dynamic WR Julian Barnett.

Overall, though, this offense is a chore to watch. Lacking innovative design and explosive playmakers, it relies on execution being perfect, and with the number of young linemen and receivers, that just does not happen often.

However, Wake Forest is defensively vulnerable. They do have a firecracker pass rusher in Carlos Basham (10 sacks), and Amari Henderson picked off four passes this season, a potential issue given Lewerke threw 12 to just 16 touchdowns.

When Wake Forest Has The Ball

Wake Forest’s passing offense has been the team’s strength, led by capable QB Jamie Newman. The late-season injury to star WR Sage Surratt is a serious bummer, but they still have quality threats out wide in Scotty Washington and Kendall Hinton. Newman can run the ball when it’s there and ended up with 163 rush attempts for 487 yards, though his efficiency and volume are obscured a bit by not being sack-adjusted. Wake’s running game is otherwise not especially menacing; Cade Carney is the primary back, Kenneth Walker III is a more explosive change of pace, but neither cracked 600 yards.

Michigan State’s defense is generally thought of as a sound unit, but the truth is and has been for years now that if you can throw the ball at all, this defense can be had. Mike Tressel’s iteration blitzes far less than his predecessors and also plays a softer version of coverage, which has often meant plenty of time for opposing QBs to operate and opportunities downfield.

If Wake head coach Dave Clawson is stubborn enough to try to run the ball against MSU, the Spartan front is likely to feast. Despite a disappointing season overall, MSU still has NFL talent on its defensive line in DE Kenny Willekes and DT Raequan Williams. The midseason suspension of MLB Joe Bachie was a serious blow, but the run defense has mostly been OK without him.

How Does This Shake Out?

Unless there is an overwhelming talent differential, which is not the case here, bowl results often seem to turn on which team is more motivated to be there.

I’ve bickered with enough MSU fans about the mindset of this team to bother getting into it much here. If you truly think a 6-6 finish and a game played in a mostly-empty stadium at 3:20 on a Friday, given everything this team returned this year, is going to result in a focused and motivated team, whatever.

Consider the opponent’s position, though. This is one of the better seasons in Wake’s history. They were nowhere near ready to challenge Clemson, and likely never will be, but while perusing that Winsipedia entry earlier, their historical struggles are hard to overstate. They don’t have an all-time winning record against any ACC opponent. They’re 18 games under .500 against Duke, they have 2 conference titles to their names, and doing research for this meant sifting through a lot of Tim Duncan and Chris Paul stuff. They won 8 games, they have an exciting product, and a number of their better players are returning next year.

The kicker, though, could be just that. In a game that could well be low-scoring, Wake’s Nick Sciba is an elite kicker, having gone 24/25 on FGs and perfect on PATs. MSU’s Matt Coghlin has missed nine field goals this year, but the staff kept trotting him out there.

Prediction: MSU 16, Wake Forest 20