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Offensive Breakdown: A razor’s edge

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The offense doesn’t need to be elite, but it does need to be perfect–and it’s not happening.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan State Spartans are a game into the hardest stretch of the 2019 schedule, and it didn’t start the way anyone in green and white was hoping.

On a team with such a dominant defense, the Spartans offense doesn’t need to match the production of the best offenses in the country. But to find success during this stretch of games, they need to do the things they can with absolute perfection. In their first test against Ohio State they failed to get the job done.

In practical terms, that means there are a few things that are essential: don’t turn the ball over, limit penalties, convert third downs and take advantage of opportunities. Against Ohio State, it was clear what happens against the best teams in the country when those things don’t happen.

Quarterback

At this point in his career, it is clear who Brian Lewerke is and what he brings to the table. He’s not Kirk Cousins or Connor Cook and he never will be. While he’s at no risk of losing his job, as long as he is the quarterback there are limitations on the MSU offense.

Lewerke showed all of his game against Ohio State. At times he was able to improvise, get out of the pocket and find open receivers. But he was inconsistent and inaccurate, often at the worst moments for the Spartans. Even when he completes passes, Lewerke almost never puts the ball in a position where the pass catchers can run with the ball after the reception.

After getting the Spartans back to within one score of the Buckeyes, Lewerke and the offense stalled. To start the second half, after things had started to get ugly and MSU desperately needed points, the quarterback drove the offense down the field and deep into OSU territory. But a first-down sack, followed by a third-and-short ugly miss brought out the field goal unit. Making things worse, Matt Coghlin missed the kick.

Lewerke is far from the reason why the Spartans lost, he was hurt by dropped passes and credited with a fumble that wasn’t his fault. But he isn’t, and will never be, a quarterback who can overcome a lack of talent around him.

Things will only get tougher against Wisconsin. The Badgers have allowed next to nothing through the air and are averaging more than two turnovers a game. Lewerke’s only chance at leading the offense to any success will depend on him not throwing the ball to the other team. He will also have to make the big throws in pressure situations. It’s an enormous ask, but for anything to happen this year it’s what the Spartans need from their quarterback.

Running Backs

For the first time all year Elijah Collins looked like a freshman. He found some success, still averaging over five yards a carry, but he’s not yet the complete package.

Collins needs more touches and that’s on the coaching staff. But against Ohio State, the Spartans found themselves in an unusual spot–down big early in the game. Because of that, Michigan State couldn’t bleed the clock and give their defense a break the way they would normally try.

Unfortunately, the biggest play of the night for Collins came early in the game. On a rare option play, Collins dropped a perfectly pitched ball, which led to the first points of the night for Ohio State.

Collins will have a big role in the offense against Wisconsin. The defense will likely be on the field for long stretches against Wisconsin’s run-heavy offense. To counter-balance, the Spartans will need long drives of their own that eat up clock and give the defense time to rest.

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

The biggest disappointment of the night came players who had the chance to break the game for MSU. In order to find success against the best teams in the Big Ten, Michigan State needs its receivers to make big plays. Against Ohio State, not only did they not make big plays, the screwed up the little things.

On the first drive of the game Cody White, who is supposed to be the most dependable of the group, fumbled the ball on the second play of the game for the MSU offense.

Darrell Stewart Jr. has emerged as the safety blanket for Lewerke. He caught the lone touchdown of the game, but in doing so, he appeared to be broken mentally by Ohio State. Through the rest of the night he was called for penalties and dropped passes in key moments, most glaringly late in the game ruining any chance at a comeback.

There is depth at both receiver and tight end. The ball is being spread around to different players and they are contributing. There is a lot of growth needed, but until White and Stewart make the big plays, nothing explosive will happen.

Offensive line

All things considered, the offensive line had a fine game against a brutal Ohio State front seven. Now that doesn’t mean they played well, no offensive line that allows four sacks in a game played well, but it was a solid “C” effort.

Again some of the issues the offensive line faced had more to do with the score and situation than anything else. Down that much, the Spartans had no other option but to pass and the Buckeyes were rushing downhill.

Unlike last year, or even earlier this season, the offensive line is not the reason drives are stalling. While not exactly road-graders, they have done a solid job in protection and have shown flashes in the run game. They will have their hands full this week against Wisconsin, but that isn’t a surprise. The best thing that could happen to this line is an early score by MSU and the defense standing strong through at least the first quarter.

For years, Mark Dantonio and the Spartans have prided themselves on finding huge success with lesser recruited talent on offense. While that’s true to an extent, it ignores that many of those three-star recruits are currently playing in the NFL. This year, the glaring difference is a lack of NFL talent on that side of the ball.

Sure, some of the younger players may emerge and grow into that role, but they haven’t shown that yet. The MSU offense isn’t doing much different from this year to seasons past, the problems just become that much more glaring when there isn’t next-level talent to lift everyone up.