Five takeaways from Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News following Michigan State’s 38-31 win over Utah State on Friday night.
For the better part of the last two seasons, getting pressure on the quarterback has been a problem for the Spartans and they had a hard time against Utah State. Kenny Willekes has been the one bright spot and he had a pair of sacks on Friday, but overall the Spartans had difficulty putting consistent pressure on the Aggies’ Jordan Love. They were credited with four quarterback hurries, but that’s not a number anyone will feel good about. The Spartans did manage to get pressure late in the game to force a decisive turnover, but that came with pressure on blitzes from the linebackers. That might be more of a regular strategy moving forward but make no mistake, the Spartans must start to find a way to get consistent pressure without blitzing if they expect to compete against the better offense in the Big Ten.
No ordinary Joe
The biggest defensive play of the game came from, of course, linebacker Joe Bachie. After collecting 100 tackles last season as a sophomore and being named the team’s most valuable player, there were many who believed Bachie was in position this season to become a star. If the first week was any indication, he’s off to a good start after recording 11 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. But it was his play on the final series to clinch the game that was most impressive as he leapt in the air to tip a Jordan Love pass, then was able to catch it and secure the possession for MSU. The Spartans have plenty of talent and depth at linebacker but there’s no doubt who the go-to guy is, and Bachie made sure everyone understood that in the opener.
Improving the pass rush will have some bearing on this, but it was a bit of a mixed bag for Michigan State’s secondary. Utah State was able to throw for 319 yards with its difficult up-tempo attack, but the big plays never came. Much of that is thanks to the play of cornerback Justin Layne, who was challenged several times and answered the bell each time. Cornerback Josh Butler and safety Khari Willis also broke up deep passes, but there was a decent amount of yardage gained on the crossing routes and quick hitters. Some of it was simply adjusting to the pace, but there’s no doubt the secondary feels good about the opener but not great. Getting Josiah Scott back will help, but with the issues up front, the pressure will be on the back end to be solid on a consistent basis.
The rushing attack, overall, was not what Michigan State was looking for, despite gaining 165 yards and more than 100 in the second half. The Spartans failed to get much of a push up front against the Utah State defensive front but did manage to find some holes late in the game thanks to two big runs on option pitches from LJ Scott and Connor Heyward. While Scott led the way with 84 yards, it was Heyward who provided at least some spark by running for a pair of touchdowns. Scott will still be the main ball carrier and he showed great patience on a first-half screen pass, but Heyward showed he’ll be a good change of pace for the Spartans as he ran hard and was quick to hit the hole. Expect the offensive line to slowly gain some cohesion, especially when left tackle Cole Chewins returns, but in the meantime it will be tough sledding for Scott and Heyward.
While the running game had its share of problems, the passing game seemed to be hitting its stride early, despite a couple of poor decisions from quarterback Brian Lewerke. His fumble in the first half when he tried to throw the ball away was a play he called “dumb” and a second-half pick-six was a momentum changer. But Lewerke was clearly in sync with all three of his top receivers — Felton Davis, Darrell Stewart and Cody White. Davis and White each had touchdowns (White also had one nullified by a penalty) and Stewart had seven grabs for 55 yards. Lewerke was under a little more pressure than the Spartans would like, but get rid of a couple mental mistakes — something that seems likely for a player like Lewerke in his second season as the starter — and the passing attack could end up being the bread and butter for the Michigan State offense.