When the Michigan State Spartans and start the game Saturday afternoon against the Penn State Nittany Lions, they will be double-digit underdogs. But MSU’s performance is much bigger than a single win or loss. They need to prove what kind of a team they are and set a tone for the rest of the season.
This isn’t about moral victories, or finding a way to come out of Happy Valley feeling good despite a loss. Each additional loss this year drastically changes the outlook on the 2018 season. But a flukey loss is just as empty for the big picture as a close loss.
The most important thing that the program needs to show Saturday is something resembling an offensive persona and consistency. Despite showing sporadic signs of life and explosion, the offensive line has been a disaster so far this year and with LJ Scott sidelined there has been no running game to speak of.
However, the responsibility to fix these offensive issues doesn’t fall on any offensive lineman or running back. It’s squarely the job of Brian Lewerke and offensive coordinator Dave Warner.
The OC has been a Spartan punching bag for most of his time in East Lansing. There is no doubt his play-calling has been questionable, but it’s never been more evident than this season. There has been no adjustments made this year, despite the overwhelming evidence that the Spartans just can’t run between the tackles, Warner has insisted on calling dives in short-yardage situations.
Is it his fault that Michigan State can’t create the push to gain one yard in front of a home crowd? No. But at some point there needs to be recognition of what this team can and can’t do. Right now, Michigan State can’t run the ball, so why force it? Warner needs to show Saturday that he’s willing to throw the ball in unusual situations. Even if it doesn’t work, simply making that adjustment will help MSU down the stretch.
Even with an injury to Cody White, the MSU wide receivers have been the strength of this team all season. It’s just a matter of getting them the ball. Lewerke hasn’t had a standout game all year. His accuracy hasn’t improved and his decision making is suspect. Most of his turnovers this year have come when he tries to force something where the reward doesn’t come close to equaling the risk.
This isn’t Lewerke’s team. If he doesn’t start to show growth, there need to be some serious decisions made on the future of the team.
The Michigan State defense has something to prove Saturday as well. Defending the run has been strong all year, but they haven’t faced an offense like Penn State. This will be a test of just how real they are.
MSU’s fourth quarter is key for the defense. Even in their wins, Michigan State has struggled to close teams out. Late drives in almost every game have stressed a Spartans offense that hasn’t proved it can answer.
Maybe it’s not fair to ask this MSU defense to play at that dominant level – they are dealing with injuries of their own. But at some point, the defense is going to need to win a game almost entirely on their own. Penn State may not be that game, their offense is probably too good to expect dominance, but controlling Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions offense to a degree, forcing crucial stops late in the game, may at least give this team an identity.
Winning Saturday’s game is crucial for Michigan State. But even if they pull the upset, without signs of life in these key areas, it’s an empty high that doesn’t mean much going forward.