East Lansing — Dating to the days of George Perles, one of Michigan State’s offensive mottos was “Pound Green Pound.”
That meant the Spartans were going to line up and run right at their opponents, daring them to try and stop their physical running attack.
Entering this season, it appeared Michigan State was primed to do the same. Even with running back Jeremy Langford off to the NFL and quarterback Connor Cook moving up the passing ranks, an experienced offensive line was back and there was plenty of promise in stable of inexperienced backs.
But headed into the final two games of the regular season, including Saturday’s showdown with Ohio State, the Michigan State running attack has been one of the disappointments of the season. Michigan State is averaging 152.4 yards a game on the ground, 10th in the Big Ten and 92nd in the nation.
“We need to run the ball effectively, I don’t think there is any question about that and we’re looking for some explosive gains,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “We got a couple of them against Nebraska. We’ve had them in the past, this year as well. But we’ve got to break out, I don’t think there is any question. We go to work on that and we’ll have another challenge this week.”
That much is clear considering the Buckeyes are sixth-best in the conference and 24th in the nation in stopping the run, allowing 126.8 yards a game.
Finding the right combination up front has been an issue for Michigan State, as nearly three of the starters from the opening week have missed time with injury. They’ve all been back for a couple of weeks, however, and they’re still looking to put it all together.
“I would say it’s going to be a huge challenge,” said center Jack Allen, who missed two games win an ankle injury. “They have a very impressive defensive front, but at the same time I think we’re starting to click on the O-line and we’re coming together, and we’ve gone through a lot of adversity together. This is just going to be another challenge for us, and we’re excited about it.”
Finding a rhythm in the backfield has also been difficult. Three different players have started, and Madre London has been bothered by a leg injury. Last week, freshman LJ Scott, who looked promising early in the season, fumbled on his only two carries.
Now it appears sophomore Gerald Holmes has become the main back with three straight starts.
“Gerald has performed consistently well for us and he’s sort of, obviously started the last few games,” co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner said. “But those other guys have done well in games and in practice, and we feel like they deserve opportunities. We’ll continue sort of the same this week, give guys opportunities. As guys perform or don’t perform — LJ put the ball on the ground a couple times last week — that sort of closes the door on his opportunity.”
It also matters which guys excel in pass protection, an area Holmes has excelled.
“That’s critical,” Warner said. “That’s a big part of what our running backs have to. (Holmes) has done a good job of it. Sometimes other guys have done a good job at it, but yeah, if you can’t pick up a blitz, you’ve got some issues.”
MSU still mum on Cook
Another day of preparation for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff against Ohio State and another day with the status quo on the health of quarterback Connor Cook.
“We are not willing to talk about Connor,” Warner said on Wednesday. “Defer that to Coach D.”
It’s been a pretty standard response following Cook’s right shoulder injury that kept him out of the second half of the Maryland victory.
Cook has maintained he’s fine and will be ready to play. He is 32-4 in his career as a starter and has a 1-1 record in starts against the Buckeyes.
Ohio State connections
Michigan State has 29 players on its roster from the state of Ohio, but that’s only part of the Spartans’ motivation. They have a coaching staff full of Buckeyes connections, as well.
None as strong, maybe, as that of co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel.
His uncle is former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, and he was a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes. He and fellow graduate assistant Mark Staten — Michigan State’s offensive line coach —followed Dantonio when he became the head coach at Cincinnati.
But Tressel said he feels nothing sentimental returning to Ohio Stadium.
“Like Dantonio always said and Jim, my uncle always said, it’s about the people,” Tressel said. “Ohio State was special to me because of the people I was with when I was at Ohio State, not because of Ohio Stadium, that’s for sure.”