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Big Fellas, Big Task: Michigan State’s Offensive Line Answers The Bell Against Notre Dame

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Why the revamped offensive line is the key to MSU’s 2016 hopes

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Notre Dame Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that perhaps the biggest question mark facing this year’s Michigan State football team was up front.

Could a program defined by the mantra “Pound Green Pound” maintain its standard of excellent offensive line play despite losing three starters — 8th overall pick in the NFL Draft and tackle Jack Conklin, three-year starting center Jack Allen and three-year starting guard/tackle Donavon Clark?

Could the new guys give freshly-minted quarterback Tyler O’Connor enough time to find his receivers and open up holes for talented running backs like LJ Scott and Gerald Holmes?

Ultimately, could they give an offense sure to have growing pains time to function?

A poor performance in the season opener against FCS Furman didn’t instill much confidence heading into a last weekend’s showdown with Notre Dame. Many (myself included) foolishly jumped to conclusions and thought the MSU line hanging with the Irish front seven was a stretch, at best.

But that’s why they play the games.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Notre Dame
Holmes delivered the knockout blow
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The MSU offensive line delivered body blow after body blow, running the ball for two or three yards at a time, until eventually the defense couldn’t hold up. Those short runs from the first half turned long in the second, and Holmes’ game-winning 73-yard touchdown run served as the haymaker.

The Spartans ended up with 36 points and 501 yards of total offense — including 260 on the ground — and allowed zero sacks to that same front seven most expected to overwhelm them.

They did surrender five tackles for loss, but this was an impressive performance from a group that came into the year without many sure things in place.

Offensive line/tight ends Coach Mark Staten said one of his biggest takeaways from last year’s injury-riddled campaign was the importance of creating effective depth. Staten has always tried to employ a rotation — reserves Benny McGowan and Tyler Higby each saw fourth-quarter snaps last week — but this offseason, he focused more heavily on cross-training lineman at multiple positions, in case the same injury plague struck again.

Case in point: Brian Allen, Kodi Keiler and McGowan have each seen time at center in the first two games. With starting guard Brandon Clemons moonlighting as a defensive tackle for the time being, that effective depth is as critical as ever.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Iowa vs Michigan State
Clemons and McGowan can help MSU bring home more hardward
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to overstate just how important the development of the line is for the offense.

There is a plethora of skill position talent on the roster — including tight end Josiah Price who is a very good run-blocker himself — but if MSU wants to win 10-plus games (again) the driving force has to be the running game. Without that, O’Connor will be forced to throw the ball 30 times a game the way Connor Cook did a year ago. You can see the predicament, I’m sure.

Instead, co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner can run the ball control offense the Spartans have built their program upon, while simultaneously featuring his best players. That includes RJ Shelton whose jet sweeps provided an effective change of pace.

If this performance from the offensive line is the standard and not an aberration, it will go a long way towards making MSU a Big Ten title contender yet again