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MSU quarterbacks understand scrutiny is part of the job

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Throughout Michigan State’s four-game slide, the quarterback debate has been intense.

While the offensive line has struggled and the defense has generated no pass rush while allowing points at a rate rarely seen under coach Mark Dantonio, the first question each week still seems to be about who’s starting at quarterback.

Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor started the first five games, was outstanding in the victory at Notre Dame, but followed that with a three-interception game against Wisconsin.

That led to redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke getting the start last week against Northwestern. He played well in his first career start and was relieved by O’Connor in the second half.

The result, however, is still four straight losses. And while the quarterbacks haven’t been the sole reason for the skid, it doesn’t take them out of the spotlight. Heading into Saturday’s game at Maryland, the decision whether to stick with Lewerke as the starter or go back to O’Connor is top of mind.

“We kind of had talk in our room,” quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. “Obviously you get all of the glory when you win, which is not fair as a quarterback and maybe you get more when you lose, but that’s the deal. We kind of said that’s what you signed up for. And they know that. They all kind of nodded their head.

“It’s a tough position. Now, how do you handle it? How do you move forward in the process of where we’re at now today as a quarterback, as a team, as an offense? We’re not one game at a time or one day, we’re one play at a time in trying to seek excellence in that play.”

That perfection has been hard to come by this season, though there have been flashes. O’Connor was effective against Notre Dame and threw three touchdowns in a quarter and a half last week in the loss to Northwestern.

It was the type of response Michigan State’s coaches expected from the captain.

“I think he got in a rhythm in throwing the deep ball and just being able to throw on time,” Salem said. “He knows where to go with the football. And that’s the thing about him, he’s a seasoned kid that’s been in our system for five years.”

But, Lewerke showed promise. The first freshman to start at quarterback for Michigan State since Stephen Reaves against Central Michigan on Sept. 11, 2004, Lewerke played with poise and moved the offense.

“That’s tough, to go in regardless as a redshirt freshman,” Salem said. “Very calm demeanor. Kind of said he just had to get hit once and then he’d sort of settle down, which sort of happened. You saw that on the drive that he was able to throw a touchdown.

“We talk about advancing the football. And maybe it’s a play you read here and something gets messed up, but go and make positive yardage. And he was able to do that.”

Salem even put part of the blame on Lewerke for the second-quarter safety when right tackle Miguel Machado was beat around the edge.

“It’s knowing progression,” Salem said. “He had a free-access hitch to the field, so the ball would’ve been out quicker. You know when you’re in five-man protection, you gotta get the ball out.”

That understanding of playing the position comes with time, and it puts Michigan State in the position of pushing Lewerke or going back to an experienced player who would know to get the ball out in a situation like that.

It’s an ongoing process, and Salem said it’s a decision that likely won’t be made until late this week.

Whoever it is, there is confidence surrounding the quarterback spot, even for a guy who’s started once.

“He’s still young,” junior offensive lineman Brian Allen said of Lewerke. “(Leadership) is something you grow into and maybe he’s not Connor Cook or anything like that yet in that sense in the huddle, but he’s a young guy who has people’s respect and people are gonna listen to him.”

It’s something Salem works on with all his quarterbacks

“You have to capture the hearts of the people around you,” Salem said. “Whoever takes command, have confidence in the call and your decision-making and your ability to make a play.”

The wild card in the quarterback race continues to be junior Damion Terry, who did not play last week. Salem said he’s still in the mix and they are deciding between three quarterbacks this week. But most of the work during the week is going to Lewerke and O’Connor.

As for freshman Messiah deWeaver, he’s spent most of the season running the scout team and likely won’t play this season.

“But we’re getting some reps with our offense in certain situations just to keep him in our verbage,” Salem said. “We’ll talk after our practice, ‘OK, what questions from our meeting?’ And then make him do the footwork with it. It’s just ever growing and ever knowing.”

But for now, the focus is on this week.

“I think just to know there’s competition (helps),” Salem said. “You should never be comfortable.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @mattcharboneau