Watch any football game with a group of Michigan State Spartans fans and it shouldn’t take long for someone to start complaining about co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner. The MSU play caller is public enemy number one any time the offense fails to live up to expectations.
Like any major figure in college sports, some of the criticism is overblown. As some in the media are eager to point out, it’s tough to coach against injuries and poor play on the field. But anyone looking to forgive Warner’s clear mistakes is missing the true problem.
The biggest issue Warner is having this year is a failure to learn and adjust to his current situation.
The last two years, while the passing game was struggling to find itself at times, LJ Scott and the rushing attack was the steadying force. Especially during the 2017 season with a healthy and high-performing offensive line. The interior running game may not have been flashy, but it was productive in an extremely Mark Dantonio, old-school Big Ten kind of way.
However, after Scott went down with an injury midway through the second game of the season and the offensive line has been anything but dependable, Warner has continued to force the issue up the middle. In both the Northwestern loss and the Penn State win, Warner insisted on calling interior run plays to little or no avail.
After these plays playing a huge role in the loss to Northwestern, Warner went right back to them in a key moment against Penn State. Down a touchdown, the Spartans had first and goal on the one-yard line in the second quarter. After two consecutive failed dive plays by La’Darius Jefferson, one of which the ball was fumbled and recovered by MSU, Warner called a quarterback sneak with Brian Lewerke. Similarly, that play was stopped short of the goal line. Had it not been for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, MSU may have had to settle for a field goal. But even then Warner didn’t learn the lesson. On first down, Jefferson was finally able to push his way into the end zone.
There were some signs from the Penn State game that Warner is starting to open the offense up to a different style. In key moments late in the game, the offense ran one pass play after another. The key in these situations are short passes that are easier to complete. They act as a substitute to the running game, getting the ball out of Lewerke’s hands quickly and into the hands of the best play makers the Spartans have.
Often times these plays won’t look very flashy. When they complete two for four yards and fail on the third, people will likely still blame Warner. When they work, fans will probably heap praise on the receivers for putting together big numbers. But there is no doubt that it would be Warner’s decision to make this adjustment.
There has also been a call for more run-pass-option plays from the MSU offense. These plays are unlikely to find continued success, for many of the same reasons running up the middle hasn’t worked. The offensive line isn’t providing enough time for plays like this to develop. On the other hand, quick sweeps to the edge have been successful
This week, the Spartans face an exceptionally stingy defense in Michigan. They proved last week that they have the ability to completely shut down a running game. When that feature is already an issue, as it is with MSU, that could be trouble if Warner decides to rely heavily on the backfield. In a game like this, it’s important to get the ball in the hands of the best players as quickly and as often as possible. For Michigan State, that means getting on the edge right away.
Warner isn’t the only issue facing this year’s Spartans. However, if he doesn’t keep making adjustments, the calls for his firing will get louder. It will be next to impossible to defend Warner still being with the team if he continues to force the issue with the running game.