To say the quarterback position has been a point of contention this season for the Michigan State Spartans would be the understatement of the season. Redshirt junior Brian Lewerke and redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi have split time throughout the year, with neither able to jumpstart the offense.
This week, it was announced that Lewerke would start Redbox Bowl in California.
“We wanted to let things take its course through bowl preparation and everything,” head coach Mark Dantonio said during Friday’s news conference. “Brian Lewerke will start the game, so he’ll be our starter as we move through.”
Dantonio went on to say that Lewerke has taken the majority of the team’s practice reps.
While that may not be the most popular decision amongst the fan base, much of which is ready to turn the page on Lewerke in favor of the program’s future, it is the right move for this year’s Spartans team. Lewerke started the majority of the season for MSU and deserves to start the bowl game.
This isn’t the first time the Spartans and Dantonio have been in a position like this. In 2012, the Spartans survived a difficult season, reaching the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl with a 6-6 record. That year, junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell started all season long before being replaced in the bowl game by backup Connor Cook. Obviously, things turned out well from that point.
Looking back, it may seem that the lesson from that year was turning to Cook earlier in the season may have paid off with more wins. Even if that’s true, there are some stark differences between the 2012 quarterback situation and 2018.
Lewerke started the year not only as the unquestioned starter, but he was expected to make big improvements in his second full season starting. Midway through the season, however, it was painfully obvious that would not be the case. The quarterback injured his throwing shoulder in a Week 7 win over Penn State. The following week against Michigan the difference was clear and he hasn’t been the same since.
After the injury, Lombardi took over to mixed results. Despite an explosive arm, Lombardi looked every bit the freshman quarterback he was. The offense looked much the same under Lombardi as it did under Lewerke.
Of course, there are a number of reasons the offense struggled. The MSU offensive line was a revolving door all season, and injuries plagued the Spartans playmakers. These issues made it next to impossible to fully evaluate either quarterback.
With all things being (relatively) equal, it just makes more sense for Michigan State to start with the more experienced Lewerke. Nothing that happens in Monday’s game will do too much to change the outlook on the 2019 season. No matter which quarterback plays, there will be a quarterback competition throughout the summer and likely into the 2019 season.
A bowl game, almost by design, is weird. Games like the Redbox Bowl don’t carry much weight and don’t inspire players on their own to play their hardest, the way the Rose Bowl would. That job is left to the coaching staff and team leaders, a group that tends to shrink as players decide to forgo bowl games in favor of the NFL Draft process.
The Michigan State offense is in desperate need of a steadying force. Lewerke’s play may not show it, but the captain is the glue that can keep the team together in this transitional period. This decision has nothing to do with Oregon, or what the Ducks will try to do against the MSU offense, and everything to do with what this needs right now.
Lewerke’s health has played the biggest role in deciding who has taken snaps for Michigan State this year. The junior said that his shoulder feels better heading into the game. But even with that Dantonio said bringing in Lombardi would be an option.
Dantonio has often showed a difference toward his more experienced players, even over sometimes more qualified freshman. But Lombardi hasn’t proven that he is that kind of player. Until he does, Lewerke deserves to run the show through the final game of the 2018 season.
With that being said – 2019’s spring game is going to be interesting.