East Lansing — Sometimes, there are no simple answers.
That’s apparently the position Michigan State is in right now when it comes to unlocking the firepower many believe exists in its offense.
“We’re still trying to figure that out,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “We haven’t clicked like we wanted to for the past couple games. We’re looking to have that game coming up.”
That game coming up is No. 24 Michigan State’s Big Ten opener Saturday night at Indiana (3-0). The Spartans enter the matchup struggling to find the end zone. They did manage to score 38 in the season-opening win over Utah State, but produced just 13 a week later at Arizona State while cashing in with a touchdown on only one of its four trips to the red zone.
Penalties and turnovers have contributed to the difficulties through the first two games, but the bulk of Michigan State’s problems begin along the offensive line. Lewerke has been under his fair share of pressure; however, it’s the running attack that has suffered.
The Spartans (1-1) are last in the Big Ten at 114 yards rushing per game, and are averaging just 3.3 yards a carry (13th).
“Well, we need to run the ball more effectively,” coach Mark Dantonio said bluntly this week.
But, as Lewerke alluded to, fixing the problem is not a simple solution. As with most aspects of the offense, it only takes one part to break down for the entire play to go wrong. However, the offensive line clearly has been at the forefront of those struggles.
“It’s just a couple of things here and there,” sophomore center Matt Allen said. “How our offense works, if one guy makes a mistake it can mess up the whole play and sometimes you see that happening. Other times you see guys going the wrong way on plays, so we’ve just got to get in the O-Line room and really get after watching the film and making sure everybody is on the same page every play.”
It’s been a bit more difficult for that group so far, thanks to some injuries. Junior left tackle Cole Chewins has played just one play while fifth-year senior left guard David Beedle was injured late in the Arizona State game. The shuffling has moved sophomore Luke Campbell from right tackle to left for the majority of time, with sophomore Jordan Reid at right tackle.
And replacing Brian Allen at center has proved tougher than expected. Junior Tyler Higby started the first two games, but has struggled while Matt Allen appears in line to get his first start this week.
Injuries aside, it’s not how this group expected things to go.
“Just coming back with the amount of starters we had gave us a little bit of confidence,” Allen said. “But after the Arizona State game, it’s definitely knocked us down. We really just want to prove to everybody this next game what we’re about, and that’s what we’re planning on doing.”
In addition to the red-zone problems, Michigan State managed to run for only 63 yards against Arizona State while senior running back LJ Scott, who was hurt early in the second half against the Sun Devils, has 103 yards on 30 carries for a 3.4 average.
His status for this week’s game is still unclear — as is that of Chewins and Beedle — but as the Spartans continue to point out, it’s a team problem, not an offensive line problem.
“There have been things where we’ve missed points, we’ve missed opportunities in making sure we take our guy,” wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel said. “We say the YMMT — your man made the tackle. How many times does my wide receiver allow their defender to make the tackle? I have to study those, I have to count those. Those are negatives, so we’re trying to make sure those things are minimal.
“My guys are starting to understand a play or two in that game and we separate ourselves. It’s a negative thing because of the loss, but the growth is you like to think they’re starting to understand the importance of (each) play, making sure you make that play during that time.”
They’re not making enough plays at the right time yet, but the players believe they’re being put in the right position. Despite criticisms of offensive coordinator Dave Warner’s play calling, the Spartans understand it’s up to them to get the job done.
“Coach Warner is calling the right plays,” senior wide receiver Felton Davis said. “He’s giving us a chance to make those plays, but he can’t play the game. We’ve got to play the game regardless of whatever is called. It’s on us as a team, when he calls a play, to do everything in our power to execute the play.”
And while it hasn’t clicked yet, this week’s opponent is counting on seeing much more by Saturday.
“They're really a complete team,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “They don't have a weakness. They're very, very solid in all phases.
“When you watch them, there's a lot of similarities (to past teams). Obviously, the scheme always varies, they'll have wrinkles and things they're trying to give to us. A typical Michigan State, Coach Dantonio team — physical, fundamental, tough. That's what they're going to be.”