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Protection Breakdown: Michigan State’s offensive line problem

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A possible strength at the start of the season, the MSU offensive line is the biggest factor in the team’s slow start.

Michigan State v Arizona State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Michigan State Spartans started the 2018 season with plenty of confidence in their offensive line. The unit returned four of the five starters from the previous season, with the assumed new guy being the latest member of the Allen clan.

Two games into the season and it’s not hard to single out the Spartans’ biggest problems.

The running game has always been a staple under Mark Dantonio. Whether it was a down year or a season with a star quarterback, the offense always ran through the ground game. This year, however, Michigan State has one of the worst running attacks in the Big Ten.

While fans have been quick to pile blame on LJ Scott, who was deserving of criticism last season, the running back has ran hard in the two games so far this year. But the difference is obvious, Scott’s getting hit at or behind the line of scrimmage and forced to fight for even the first yard. The offensive line is allowing pressure to disrupt running plays, especially interior rushes, on nearly every attempt.

That has resulted in Scott averaging only 3.4 yards-per-carry through the first two games, a huge step back from his 4.5 during a “down” 2017 season. As a team, MSU is only averaging 3.3 yards-per-carry for a total of 228 yards, more than 100 yards fewer than Nebraska who has only played one game. The Spartans are worst in the Big Ten in both categories.

The lone bright spot in the running game has come from rushes on the edges. The best plays have been option runs, the one play design that requires a defensive lineman to come off unblocked.

There are two main reasons the for the offensive line struggles – both concerning who isn’t on the line. Left tackle Cole Chewins has missed the first two games due to injury. The Spartans have started Luke Campbell on the left side and Jordan Reid on the right, both sophomores. Without steady play from the players asked to block the best pass rushers, Brian Lewerke has been sacked five times, on pace to blow by their season total from last year.

The even more glaring issue has come from the center position. There is no doubt that senior Brian Allen was the rock of last year’s line. Now in the NFL, his younger brother Matt Allen seemed the heir apparent. But the sophomore started the season on the bench behind Tyler Higby. However, because of continued struggles, both players have seen plenty of game action.

The two biggest responsibilities of the center are diagraming the protection at the line of scrimmage and getting the quarterback the ball. As stated previously, the protection has been atrocious. But just as importantly, play timing has been off all season because of poor snaps. Even when Chewins returns to settle the tackle position, the center will remain a question until one of these two players makes big improvements.

Unfortunately, there is a third possibility as to why the offensive line has struggled – they just aren’t that good.

Last season Michigan State was in the middle of the pack almost across the board statistically on offense. This year, with nearly the same offensive line, the simple added experience was expected to improve play – or at the very least keep the offense where it was. But that relies on a group of mostly underclassmen all improving. That is far from a given in college. Far too regularly, players that age take a step back or fail to improve in year two. If that is the case, there is really nothing the MSU offense can do to improve.

The two-game sample size is admittedly small. However, the Spartans next game starts their Big Ten schedule. In the Big Ten East, a weak front line can be a complete disaster. Dantonio and the Spartans have a bye week to get things together, but if improvements aren’t made, this team will look more like the 2016 squad than last year’s.