MSU’s O’Connor, Lewerke face huge test

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — For almost any offensive coordinator who has attempted to prepare to face Michigan this season, there surely have been plenty of sleepless nights.

While leading the Big Ten in nearly every defensive category, Michigan is No. 1 in the nation in total defense (207 yards), scoring defense (10.0), passing defense (110.0), first downs allowed (74) and third-down defense (13 percent). The Wolverines are second nationally in pass efficiency defense (84.19 rating), third in sacks (3.57 average) and red-zone defense (66.7 percent) and fourth against the run (96.0).

For Michigan State co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman, the challenge today comes with the added bonus of using their share of young players on an offense that hasn’t consistently produced.

“You just can’t change a whole system and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to call all these new plays,’ ” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “That doesn’t exist. You have to use what you have and look to take advantage of some of the things that they do, and then your players have to beat their players, whether it’s in coverage or whether it’s running the football or yards after contact or whatever the case.

“They’ve been tough to run the ball on, and they were rough to run the ball on last year, as well. So we need to be able to run the football with some effectiveness and throw it, and productivity, again, which they’ve been difficult to score against — they’ve got a good defense. ... The challenge is there, there’s no question about that.”

What makes that challenge more daunting is the quarterback position continues to be unclear for the Spartans. Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor started the first five games before giving way to redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke the last two weeks.

Aside from a poor performance from O’Connor in the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin, neither has been the reason Michigan State is losing.

On the other hand, there have been few difference-making plays from the duo.

It’s created the same old question heading into today — who will start at quarterback?

“It’s probably a game-time decision based on how the week goes,” Dantonio said Tuesday.

It would seem logical to go with O’Connor, especially considering the way he played in last season’s victory at Ohio State. It also might not be wise to potentially crush a young player’s confidence against a swarming defense like Michigan’s.

Michigan State, however is young at plenty of positions, and the thought could be to stick with the guy who has a shot to be the starter next season.

“I think it’s the same old thing,” Bollman said. “There has to be the constant threat of balance. Maybe as the game evolves you don’t use one as much as the other, but hopefully you’re competent at both.”

Rarely has Michigan State been competent at running and throwing the ball. Outside of a three-quarter stretch at Notre Dame, the offense has been wildly inconsistent. It was effective through the air against Northwestern while it managed to only run the ball against Maryland.

“I think Brian plays fearless,” fifth-year senior tight end Josiah Price said. “I think he’s not afraid to just throw the ball around, take shots, let it go, and then as you can see with his scrambling and the way he runs, he’s not afraid to take a hit, he’s not afraid to lower his shoulder and try and dive for the chains.”

Will it be enough to pull off the upset?

It’s not clear he’ll even get a chance. If he does, there likely will be some mistakes, but the Spartans also will be counting on the quarterback to provide a spark.

“I know it’s frustrating. I can understand that,” Dantonio said. “But you’ve got to identify the problem and then try and solve the problem, and that’s what we’re trying to do, and we’re working very tirelessly doing that.

“With that comes young players sometimes, redshirt freshmen playing quarterback, he’s going to make some mistakes. He’s going to also make some plays. He’s the catalyst of that when he’s playing in that position.” @mattcharboneau