East Lansing — The fact that Michigan State was heading into the 2017 season with a young roster was hardly a surprise.
The Spartans knew full well they were going to be counting on relative inexperience all over the field, from quarterback and receiver, to both the offensive and defensive lines as well as the secondary.
However, one place Michigan State felt confident in its knowledge and depth was at running back. With juniors LJ Scott and Madre London, as well as fifth-year senior Gerald Holmes, the Spartans had three productive backs that all had starting experience and all had produced at different points.
But four games into the season, none of the three has stood out as quarterback Brian Lewerke leads the Spartans in rushing. And after Michigan State gained 88 yards on 40 carries for an average of 2.2 yards per rush in the win over Iowa, there is growing concern about the running game as the Spartans get set to travel to Ann Arbor on Saturday to take on No. 7 Michigan.
“Running the football is predicated on everybody doing their job,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday. “From the structure of what was presented, every single person up front, all five offensive lineman including the tight end or tight ends and running back and then the fullback as well. But the running back and wide receivers blocking, and everything like that.
“Really, to make it happen, everything has got to be perfect. There’s some vision issues at times, whether it’s some missed blocks or getting defeated at the point of attack sometimes, so it’s sort of all-inclusive.”
Which, of course, means the running woes do not all fall on the running backs. A big reason for the issues last week was the fact Iowa is strong up front and put plenty of players in the box to stop the run.
But Michigan State also is going into games with a young offensive line. Center Brian Allen is a senior, but after that it’s two sophomores, a redshirt freshman and a true freshman. That true freshman was Kevin Jarvis, who got his first start in place of the injured David Beedle
Dantonio said Beedle’s injury is not a long-term one and that he was impressed with Jarvis’ play.
“I thought Kevin Jarvis played very well for a true freshman in there, and he went the whole way,” Dantonio said. “That was extremely impressive and he won on a lot of his responsibilities. I thought he carried those out, knew what to do and did it well.”
The numbers through the first three games didn’t look bad, as Michigan State is fourth in the Big Ten, averaging 187.5 yards a game, with the 296 gained against Western Michigan helping out that number. But much of that success has been thanks to the running of Lewerke, who has 248 yards on 38 carries, as well as the 101 yards on 10 attempts from wide receiver Darrell Stewart.
A close look at the tailbacks shows things need to get better. Scott has 214 yards on 58 carries for an average of 3.7 yards. However, a 44-yard run in the Western Michigan game inflates that average. Holmes has 105 yards on 27 carries (3.9-yard average) and London has 96 yards on 28 attempts (3.4 average).
It all means the young offensive line will have its hands full against a Michigan team that is allowing only 69.3 yards a game, which leads the nation.
“We’re young across the front, but I think those guys are making obvious gains,” Dantonio said. “But it’s tough up there. Like I said earlier, you’ve got to be right on all ends, not just one guy right. Everybody has to win.
“So, there’s a lot going on up there, and that’s why offensive line coaches, in many ways, are some of the finest coaches in the country as a whole because schematically, they need to know what’s going on.”
MSU RUSHING LEADERS
Brian Lewerke: 38 attempts, 248 yards, 6.5 average, 2 TD
LJ Scott: 58 attempts, 214 yards, 3.7 average, 1 TD
Gerald Holmes: 27 attempts, 105 yards, 3.9 average, 0 TD
Darrell Stewart: 10 attempts, 101 yards, 10.1 average, 0 TD
Madre London: 28 attempts, 96 yards, 3.4 average, 1 TD