Heading into the 2018 season, it was the offense that received most of the attention for the Michigan State Spartans. Returning nearly every starter, with playmakers across the board, it was impossible not to feel at least a little excited for what could be.
Nothing from the first game of the season, a narrow victory over Utah State, should cause any panic, but there may be a little bit of a damper on the excitement. The Spartans put up the ugliest 38 points imaginable, needing a late touchdown drive to win the game. Despite that, there were plenty of flashes of the offense that fans hoped to see.
Michigan State saw all sides of Brian Lewerke on Friday night. The junior quarterback threw for 287 yards with a pair of touchdown passes, plus an enormous two-point conversion. He added 31 yards on the ground as well.
However, he also gave up two enormous turnovers. Early in the second quarter with the Spartans nearing midfield, Lewerke found himself in an unfortunately familiar position of trying to do too much. In an attempt to avoid a sack, Lewerke attempted to shovel the ball at the feet of LJ Scott. However, the refs ruled the play a fumble and didn’t review the play. Even if it was a pass, however, it was far too big of a risk. The big blow came in the third quarter. With Michigan State up 10 late in the third quarter, Lewerke was intercepted by Utah State’s Gaje Ferguson who returned it 40-yards into the end zone.
As was so often the case last season, Lewerke was at his best while on the move. He forced the defense to respect his ability to run, opening up passing routes underneath.
Most importantly for MSU, their quarterback found success in the most important moments of the game. On the final full offensive drive of the game, Lewerke completed five passes in a row finished off by three option plays with the final one resulting in a touchdown. As the cherry-on-top, Lewerke completed a pass to Felton Davis III for the two-point conversion, an underneath pass made especially difficult because of the proximity to the goal line.
If only looking at statistics, it would be easy to blame Scott for a lot of the MSU offensive issues. The senior running back didn’t have his best game, but that had more to do with the help around him than anything else. The interior running game was almost non-existent, mostly because of the offensive line. Scott only broke a few plays for big chunks of yards, but ran hard between the tackles even when there was no where to run.
The beneficiary of Scott’s Sisyphean struggles was sophomore Connor Heyward. With only five touches, Heyward seemed to turn the corner for a big gain every time. Most telling of the trust Mark Dantonio has in the young back was putting him in to replace Scott on third down of the final drive. A play that resulted in a 13-yard touchdown.
In the passing game, Davis looked every bit of the star receiver MSU fans hope him to be. Davis made the most of his three catches, scoring a touchdown, two-point conversion and making a spectacular catch to set up the final touchdown deep in Utah State territory. The Aggies clearly focused their attention on stopping Davis, and while his touches were limited, he emerged when the team needed him the most.
Cody White led the team in receiving yards, and caught a touchdown, but it was Darrell Stewart Jr. who acted as Lewerke’s safety blanket. The junior always seemed to find the open space just when Lewerke needed him, leading the team in catches and presenting a true third option in the passing game. Something that proved to be too stressful for the defense.
The biggest blow of the game came before the opening kickoff for the MSU offensive line. Cole Chewins didn’t dress for the game due to injury. The front-line, which was supposed to be strong returning four of five starters, instead looked sloppy all game long.
In addition to missing Chewins at tackle, the center position was a rotation between Tyler Higby and Matt Allen. Higby started the game, but after issues with the shotgun snap and protection problems, Allen was given a shot. Unfortunately, the protection didn’t improve much.
Lewerke’s mistakes may have looked the biggest and Scott is an easy target for complaints, but it was the offensive line’s struggles that caused the vast majority of the issues for MSU.
Heading to Arizona State won’t make anything easier for the MSU offense. Not only will they be on the road, but in the desert heat, players will need to make sure cramps don’t become an issue.
A slow start for any offense shouldn’t be unexpected, but the issues with the offensive line aren’t easily fixed.
The Arizona State defense looked dominant in their opening week blowout win over the University of Texas San Antonio. They allowed only seven points and forced three turnovers. Obviously the MSU offense brings a bit more to the table than the Roadrunners, but they will be tested.
The key to success on offense this week will come from sustained drives. MSU will always have big-play potential with their stars, but getting Scott going and keeping the chains moving on third down will keep the MSU defense off the field. In hot games like this one is expected to be, the defense that gets left on the field the longest always seems to break.
If Scott can average a few more yards-per-carry and all three of the MSU receivers stay active, the Spartans should be able to put up more than enough points to get their second win of the season.