David Beedle, Brian Lewerke, Joe Bachie and Cody White talk about Michigan State-Penn State. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — A couple of weeks ago in Minnesota, it appeared the Michigan State running attack was starting to break out.
After five weeks of inconsistency with the quarterback and wide receivers being as or more effective than the running backs, the Spartans rolled up 245 yards in a win over the Golden Gophers with LJ Scott running for 194 yards and Madre London 74.
The young offensive line was in control and it looked like the Michigan State offense was finding its identity.
However, that optimism was short lived. The next week against Indiana, Michigan State gained 89 yards on 44 carries for an average of just more than 2 yards a carry. Last week in the loss to Northwestern, the Spartans gained 95 yards on 30 carries, a better average but still not the production needed to find offensive balance.
While the running backs have taken some heat, most of the focus turns to the offensive line. However, as the coaching staff has pointed out on a nearly weekly basis, there’s much more to the running game than just offensive line play and building momentum can be difficult.
“Every week is a new week,” offensive line coach Mark Staten said. “Every week we face different opponents, how they try to do things structurally and how physical they may be, blitzes, etc. We try to dial up the runs we feel will work should we stay on our blocks, should the running back hit the hole correctly, should the tight end kick out or stay on his block, should the wide receivers get their blocks. It’s all a collective unit. But up front, we need to be better.”
No. 24 Michigan State (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten) ranks in the middle of the pack in the conference in rushing, averaging 167.1 yards a game. However, that rank drops to ninth with an average of 135 yards in five conference games.
Scott, who established a career-high in the Minnesota game, is ninth in rushing in the Big Ten at 73 yards a game.
Even with it being all-inclusive, the offensive line is putting pressure on itself to improve.
“The biggest thing is finishing,” junior guard David Beedle said. “There’s been a lot of assignment things, but the biggest thing for us is just finishing. It seems like every play there’s just that one person or that one thing that doesn’t go quite right and kind of makes the play not go as planned. We’ve been emphasizing the run game and staying on blocks, being physical up front and I think we’re setting ourselves up to break out here in November.”
The emergence of the passing game could help. Last week, quarterback Brian Lewerke threw for a program-record 445 yards as Michigan State’s offense came to life in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Plenty of that was due to playing from behind, but early in the game there was more of an emphasis on throwing early in drives, something the Spartans haven’t done much in the past. In the first quarter, Michigan State threw on first down five times and gained 199 total yards.
“We threw down the field the first series. We ran a little bit, as well, but we threw initially,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “Then you got to start to play the down-and-distance as the game progresses. You start playing situations in the game which can dictate pass or run.”
The Spartans ran heavily in the second quarter, passing just three times while running nine times for 10 yards. That trend continued through the first two drives of the third quarter before the Spartans opened it up.
Heading into Saturday’s matchup with No. 7 Penn State, however, it doesn’t sound like Michigan State will be looking to throw the ball 57 times like it did last week. Dantonio is clear about what he wants offensively and that’s to be able to run the ball.
“I think coming into the season, how do you not turn around and hand the ball to your tailbacks 20 times a game with the tailbacks we have?” he said. “I think you have to do that collectively or individually. If somebody gets the hot hand, you got to hand it to them. But we'll keep working at it. At some point in time, it will respond.”
Until then, it will continue to be a week-to-week effort to find offensive balance.
“It’s frustrating but at the same time we have trust in the whole offense,” Beedle said. “If we’re not getting it done up front or we can’t run the ball or whatever, we have faith in Brian and our wide receivers to make plays as well.
“So obviously, we’d like to run the ball a little better and that’s what we are striving toward but just trying to work the offense as a whole.”
Penn State at Michigan State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Penn State 7-1, 4-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 6-2, 4-1
Line: Penn State by 8 1/2