Of all the things to come out of this season for Michigan State, the development of Brian Lewerke may be the most important. Certainly the defense was outstanding, and the young receiving corps looks like it is very legit. But without good quarterback play, there is only so far you can go.
Barring a major change, Brian Lewerke will be a three year starter in East Lansing. With that in mind let’s check and see how his sophomore season compares with that of MSU’s last two three year starters at quarterback.
Brian Lewerke: 233-396 (58.8%), 2580 yards, 6.5 yards/attempt, 17 TD, 7 INT, 124.20 rating
Connor Cook: 223-380 (58.7%), 2755 yards, 7.3 yards/attempt, 22 TD, 6 INT, 135.52 rating
Kirk Cousins: 198-328 (60.4%), 2680 yards, 8.2 yards/attempt, 19 TD, 9 INT, 142.64 rating
So a couple things jump out here. One is that Lewerke has already attempted more passes than either of the other two, despite playing in fewer games. Cook played 14 games, Cousins 13, while Lewerke is only at 12 so far with the bowl game on the way. The other two did have QB competitions early in the year though, with Nichol throwing 91 passes in 2009 and Maxwell and O’Connor throwing 47 passes in 2013.
The completion percentages for Lewerke and Cook are nearly identical, although Cook has the yards per attempt advantage. Lewerke has the lowest rating of the three as well but not way off the pace. His interception rate is better than Cousins and just barely below Cook.
Brian Lewerke: 110 carries, 486 yards, 4.42 yards/attempt, 5 TD
Connor Cook: 69 carries, 76 yards, 1.10 yards/attempt, 1 TD
Kirk Cousins: 31 carries, 60 yards, 1.94 yards/attempt, 0 TD
Obviously Lewerke has a big advantage here. Cook and Cousins could certainly move when they had to, but Lewerke is a true dual threat option. The 110 carries by Lewerke is the most for a Spartan quarterback since Drew Stanton had 110 in 2006.
So while Lewerke wasn’t quite as efficient a passer, he made up for it with his legs. That brought his total touchdowns to 22, one within Cook’s 23 total TD’s. It also gives him the overall yardage lead.
Brian Lewerke: 3066 yards, 6.06 yards/play
Connor Cook: 2831 yards, 6.31 yards/play
Kirk Cousins: 2740 yards, 7.63 yards/play
The per play efficiency when adding in the rushing yards gets Lewerke pretty close to Cook, while Cousins remains the most efficient of the three.
Third Down Performance
The ability to convert on third down is really what can make or break a quarterback. Can you get the job done in obvious passing situations, often when needing to pick up big chunks of yardage. So let’s see how are threesome did on third down.
Overall on Third Down
Brian Lewerke: 60-113 (53.1%), 762 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT, 117.88 rating, 47 first downs
Connor Cook: 67-123 (54.5%), 912 yards, 10 TD, 1 INT, 141.96 rating, 50 first downs
Kirk Cousins: 51-97 (52.6%), 717 yards, 6 TD, 4 INT, 126.83 rating, 37 first downs
All three completion percentages are pretty close. Cook did a great job with the yardage and touchdowns, giving him the highest rating. But Lewerke picked up the highest percentage of first downs, at 41.5 percent.
Third and Long (7+ yards)
Brian Lewerke: 32-70 (45.7%), 529 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 23 first downs
Connor Cook: 32-69 (46.3%), 490 yards, 8 TD, 0 INT, 21 first downs
Kirk Cousins: 26-54 (48.1%), 419 yards, 5 TD, 2 INT, 18 first downs
Once again we see Lewerke and Cook very similar, nearly identical attempts and completions, with Cook hitting more touchdowns, but Lewerke picking up a few more first downs.
Third Down Rushing
Brian Lewerke: 42 attempts, 177 yards, 2 TD, 16 first downs
Connor Cook: 20 attempts, 11 yards, 1 TD, 8 first downs
Kirk Cousins: 12 attempts, 26 yards, 0 TD, 5 first downs
These are mostly here just to help add to the total numbers. Obviously we know Lewerke is going to be used as a third down running threat, while the other two are likely scrambles or sneaks for most of theirs.
Third Down Totals
Brian Lewerke: 155 plays, 939 yards, 6.06 yards/play, 6 TD, 2 INT, 63 first downs (40.6%)
Connor Cook: 143 plays, 923 yards, 6.45 yards/play, 11 TD, 1 INT, 58 first downs (40.6%)
Kirk Cousins: 109 plays, 743 yards, 6.81 yards/play, 6 TD, 4 INT, 42 first downs (38.5%)
So when we add it all up we see Lewerke and Cook come out with the exact same conversion rate. It’s also interesting to see that Lewerke has already been asked to make the play himself 12 more times than Cook, despite playing in two fewer games. One thing that does stand out is how good all these guys numbers look. Over six yards per play on third down, 40% conversions, low turnover numbers. This is how you win ball games.
You also win ball games by scoring points, so it only makes sense that we also take a look at the red zone numbers for our trio of sophomore signal callers.
Brian Lewerke: 31-48 (64.6%), 233 yards, 14 TD, 0 INT, 201.60 rating (3 rushing TD)
Connor Cook: 15-28 (53.6%), 164 yards, 11 TD, 0 INT, 232.41 rating (1 rushing TD)
Kirk Cousins: 19-32 (59.4%), 189 yards, 10 TD, 1 INT, 205.87 rating
These numbers are pretty filthy across the board, but Lewerke really stands out. High completion percentage, no turnovers and 17 total touchdowns in the red zone. That will get it done.
Looking at all of these numbers, it is hard not to see a lot of Connor Cook in Brian Lewerke. Their numbers are pretty similar overall, and in the specific situations as well. Both of them have a knack for making plays when they need too. I took it one step farther and looked at their numbers during close games. These are their stats for when the score is within seven points either way:
Lewerke: 145-243 (59.7%), 1597 yards, 13 TD, 4 INT
Cook: 166-287 (57.8%), 1942 yards, 14 TD, 3 INT
Once again, nearly equal. Lewerke is just about 60% completion and averaging 6.6 yards per attempt, while Cook is at about 6.8 yards per attempt. Both with way more scores than turnovers.
Obviously, one season does not mean that future success is guaranteed. But these were all sophomore numbers, and when you perform like that over a full season as a sophomore, it’s hard to imagine that player regressing with more maturity and practice.
Brian Lewerke has a chance to be Dantonio’s third three-year starter at quarterback. Based on the numbers from his sophomore season, he also has a good chance to be just as successful as his two predecessors. Considering those two were the winningest starters in school history, this bodes well for the next two seasons of Michigan State football.