Spartans might change quarterback, but not philosophy

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Tyler O'Connor

East Lansing — Facing the possibility of the first four-game skid in 10 years, it’s not surprising the finger-pointing has begun in earnest at Michigan State.

It’s not happening within the program, but for fans that have grown accustomed to winning a lot of football games and competing for championships, staring at a 2-3 overall record with an 0-2 start in the Big Ten is difficult.

For the first couple of losses, the heat was on quarterback Tyler O’Connor. Following another listless offensive outing in last week’s 31-14 loss to BYU, the ire has been turned toward the play-calling of co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner.

With Northwestern visiting Spartan Stadium today, who will take the snaps from center remains a secret, but who’s calling the shots on offense is not.

“I think every single week, we’re going to try to tailor things to who we play against, what they do,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “In terms of who is calling the plays, no, there will not be a change. Absolutely not. Our football program has been in place for quite some time here. We’ve been successful.

“The natural thing is for everybody to always start to say, ‘It’s this guy’s fault or it’s that guy’s fault.’ It’s all inclusive. It’s all inclusive. The first person that needs to take that responsibility is me. That’s where it stands.”

Entering today’s game, Michigan State is 10th in the Big Ten in total offense and 102nd in the nation at 366.2 yards. When it comes to scoring, the Spartans average 21 points, better than two teams in the Big Ten and 112th in the nation.

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That’s a far cry from the last three seasons when Michigan State was winning 36 games, including two Big Ten championships and a pair of bowls along with a trip to the College Football Playoffs. In 2014 alone, the Spartans averaged 43 points and 500.8 yards.

But the players from those teams are long gone, and the transition is much like one the Spartans went through in 2012 when they went 7-6.

“We won a lot of football games here and we’ve had some high-scoring offenses,” Dantonio said. “We have three quarterbacks playing in the NFL. Wide receivers playing in the NFL, tailbacks playing in the NFL. It’s all about play-calling and execution. But we’ve got to be productive.”

So far, the production hasn’t been there. O’Connor has struggled at quarterback while the running backs have been having their issues along with a young receiving corps that’s suffering through growing pains.

But where the transition is really hurting is on the offensive line. Michigan State lost three starters from last season — two were All-Americans and all three are playing in the NFL. Finding the right group this year has been difficult, blending young talent with older players who are taking on larger roles.

“It comes down to consistency,” said junior Brian Allen, one of the few linemen with significant experience. “You can say Notre Dame is a 2-4 team, but that was the best front seven we’ve played talent-wise and we showed up that week, so it’s not an excuse not to show up the last three. It comes down to focus and everyone doing their job week in and week out.

“Last week it was four guys and one guy (making a mistake) here, then four guys and one guy (making a mistake) there. Just one guy, not the same guy, but we need to come together and all five do our job at once.”

It’s all come to a head with Warner taking the heat, especially for what went down vs. BYU. Michigan State had an impressive first drive, showing offensive balance by throwing on first down three times and marching 72 yards for a touchdown.

Michigan State co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner was criticized for his lack of imagination in his play calls last week against BYU.

After that, it was back to predictable first-down runs. Of the next 14 first-down plays, eight were runs. Five of the passes, however, came with Michigan State trailing 24-7 in the fourth quarter. At one point late in the first half, Michigan State ran eight straight times on two drives that resulted in punts.

“You can’t sit there and say, ‘OK, let’s put in an offense this week,’ ” Dantonio said. “You have certain things that you do that you hang your hat on that are staples. You have to be able to do those things well every single week. They’re just staples of who you are.

“Nobody starts from scratch every week and says, ‘OK, let’s figure out and practice these 90 plays.’ You have an X amount of time to rep these plays in practice. ... So you’re basically saying, ‘Here are our staples, here is what we know how to do in our sleep, here’s the wrinkles, these are the ways we’re getting to these every week.’ ”

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So whether it’s O’Connor or Damion Terry or Brian Lewerke taking the snaps, Michigan State’s offense will at least look like it always has. Getting it all to work is what’s still in question.

“We’ve got to refocus and not be OK with it,” Allen said. “When things like this happen it makes people work harder and Coach D always talks about getting backed in a corner and fighting out of it. ...

“Nothing has gone our way and we haven’t played how we’ve wanted to and it comes down to us wanting to get out and fight and get back to where we were.” @mattcharboneau