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MSU runners flourish behind healthy offensive line

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — As Michigan State reveled in its victory over Ohio State last week, players gathered in a small room at one corner of Ohio Stadium to address the media.

The first group to come out was the quarterbacks — the injured star, Connor Cook, and the unlikely heroes, Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry.

As O’Connor and Terry talked about how they were able to step in for Cook and lead the offense to a 17-14 victory, the attention turned to the play of the offensive line.

As O’Connor was about to heap praise on the offensive line, Cook quietly uttered a phrase that hasn’t been heard much this season — “pound, Green, pound.”

It’s a term that goes back to Lorenzo White in the late 1980s and has been a big part of coach Mark Dantonio’s offenses over the previous eight seasons. Just a year ago, Michigan State had its most prolific season on the ground, gaining 3,057 yards while running back Jeremy Langford ran for 1,522 yards and 22 touchdowns.

It capped an amazing two years for Langford, who scored 40 touchdowns and ran for nearly 3,000 yards.

Headed into 2015, there was a belief Michigan State’s rushing attack could be just as potent. Langford was off to the NFL, but the offensive line returned four starters and was expected to be among the best in the nation. However, things haven’t exactly gone as planned. That is, until last weekend at Ohio State.

Against the Buckeyes — a team ranked in the top 25 in the nationby allowing 126.8 rushing yards a game — the Spartans offensive line imposed its will from the first snap right through to the final decisive drive.

Michigan State officially ran for 203 yards — 11 were lost on quarterback sacks — its second-best performance of the season.

“You could tell from the first run of the game,” sophomore running back Gerald Holmes said. “I didn’t get wrapped up so I had a chance to get to the secondary. After that first carry, I knew we’d be pretty good in the run game.”

That 8-yard gain was something that hasn’t been around much this season — significant yardage on the ground on first down, something that opens up the playbook. It was vital early in the game as well as late, including LJ Scott’s 20-yard run from the MSU 4 in the fourth quarter.

“Notably for us, we were much better on first down which makes things a lot easier to call, especially in a game like that where you really can’t throw it at times during the game,” co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. “To be second-and-medium was a lot better than some other scenarios we’ve had during the year sometimes.”

Those other scenarios this season have been frustrating for the Spartans. Some of it can be put on the change in running backs, but most of it is the fact the offensive line has been shuffling all season.

After two seasons of virtually no injuries, the offensive line was hit hard this season. First to miss time was right tackle Kodi Kieler (knee). He went down in week two, missed a couple of weeks and has fought through lingering issues since.

Then came the knee injury to left tackle Jack Conklin, one that kept him out two weeks. While he was out, backup Dennis Finley broke his leg, forcing center Jack Allen to move to tackle. While he was out of position, Allen suffered an ankle injury that put him on the shelf for two weeks.

All the while, the rushing attack was running in the mud. The prolific passing game was carrying the Spartans, but they knew they needed to start running the ball.

As players started to come back, it has slowly come together. The entire offensive line was back against Nebraska and Maryland, but things still weren’t clicking. Apparently it was just a matter of time.

“Beginning with Maryland we’ve been knocking the rust off,” Conklin said. “Having everyone back, we couldn’t have asked for a much better performance and a time to come together in a big game like that last week.”

“It was big for us to step up. The older guys had been getting the younger guys together and everyone was working for the common prize at the end. It was huge. We’re coming together at the perfect time.”

Now, they’ll be tested again as Penn State comes to town on Saturday with another strong defensive line.

“I would say they’re just as good as the D-line we just faced,” Allen said. “It will be a big challenge for us and I think we’ll be ready.”

If they are, it will likely lead the Spartans to the Big Ten championship game and from there, a spot in the playoffs is possible.

Penn State at Michigan State

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV / radio: ESPN / WJR 760

Line: MSU by 11

Records: Penn State (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten), No. 6 Michigan State (10-1, 6-1)

Series: Series tied 14-14-1