Michigan State season review: A-plus coaching effort leads to playoff berth

Under Mark Dantonio, Michigan State managed to make numerous key plays during its biggest games of the season. Mike Carter/USA TODAY Sports

The lasting legacy of this senior-laden Michigan State team is still yet to be decided. A team that was never shy about its goals to reach the national title game now has a chance to do so if the Spartans can beat Alabama in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on New Year’s Eve.

Michigan State locked up the third seed in the playoff despite being bitten by the injury bug and a last-minute loss to 5-7 Nebraska. The Spartans have their chance to “reach higher,” as head coach Mark Dantonio likes to say, thanks to a flair for the dramatic in big games and strong efforts from its defensive front and fifth-year senior quarterback Connor Cook.

Grading the offense: B

The Spartans scored 32.1 points per game this season, taking a step back toward average after piling up big totals in 2014. Cook and receiver Aaron Burbridge made Michigan State a dangerous passing team, but they operate better when opponents are concerned with stopping the run. Despite a talented group of young backs, the rushing attack moved in fits and starts this season, averaging 160.7 yards per game.

Grading the defense: B

Michigan State’s rushing defense finished among the 10 top units in the country for the fifth consecutive year. A defensive line anchored by future pros controlled the line of scrimmage against every opponent it faced. The normally stout secondary, though, took a step back this season. A mixture of NFL attrition and injuries led to a young and inexperienced backfield that gave up an uncharacteristic number of big plays. This group is better built to stop grinding, pro-style offenses like the one they’ll see against Alabama.

Grading the special teams: C-plus

Special teams were a liability for much of the season for Michigan State. Its punt coverage, punt return and field goal numbers all fall in the bottom 20 percent of FBS schools. The Spartans did, however, manage to come up with big plays when they needed them most. The returned fumble against Michigan (see below if you were living under a rock this fall) and Michael Geiger’s windmill game winner at Ohio State keep this grade slightly above average.

Grading the coaching: A-plus

At times this season the offense leaned on the defense, and at times it went the other way. Consistently, though, Dantonio and his staff found a way to scrape out victories with whatever you want to call that elixir of winning teams -- culture, luck, confidence, etc. Even after losing longtime defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, the Spartans staff put together its best effort in the nine years Dantonio has been in East Lansing.

Player of the year: Cook has been a big part of Dantonio’s ability to find ways to win games during the past three years. He saved the best performances of his career for games when Michigan State was struggling to fend off the slew of injuries they had this season. He threw 24 touchdown passes and five interceptions despite a shoulder injury that affected him in his last four games.

Top play: There are a couple candidates here, but you can’t beat college football’s play of the year. Formerly anonymous sophomore Jalen Watts-Jackson became an instant hero on Oct. 17 when he scooped a botched punt at Michigan Stadium and carried it 38 yards to a winning touchdown as time expired. The score kept the Spartans’ playoff hopes alive and sank rival Michigan’s chance at a storybook season.

Stat of the year: Twenty-seven seconds. That’s the combined amount of time remaining on the clock when Michigan State sealed its three biggest wins of 2015 so far. The Spartans didn’t take a lead against Michigan or Ohio State until the final play of both of those games. Against Iowa in a back-and-forth Big Ten championship game, freshman L.J. Scott took the lead for good with what seemed like an eternity of time left by Michigan State standards -- 27 seconds.