Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News breaks down MSU's win at Indiana in the Big Ten opener The Detroit News
Five takeaways from Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News following Michigan State's 35-21 win at Indiana on Saturday night.
Through three games, the Michigan State running attack continues to be a mess. With senior LJ Scott on the sidelines nursing an ankle injury, sophomore Connor Heyward and freshman La’Darius Jefferson managed just 57 yards on 22 carries for an average of 3.8 yards a carry. As a team, the Spartans managed 131 yards, but 75 came on one play when freshman receiver Jalen Nailor took a jet sweep for a touchdown. Why is it still a problem? Like most things on offense, it all starts up front and the offensive line is simply not playing well. Injuries have played a role as tackle Cole Chewins and guard David Beedle saw limited action on Saturday and guard/tackle Luke Campbell was also hurt. However, there is enough experience in that group that there should be more consistency. Simply getting Scott back won’t be a cure. The guys up front have to get it together.
The offensive line isn’t blocking well in the run game and it isn’t doing quarterback Brian Lewerke any favors, either. The junior has been under more pressure this year and it’s starting to affect his confidence in the pocket, leading to more erratic throws and costly turnovers. Entering Saturday’s game at Indiana, Lewerke was completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. However, he was often missing open targets and by the time the win over Indiana was complete, he had two more interceptions for a total of four this season. He also lost another fumble — his second this season — as the Spartans continue to hurt themselves. Lewerke has plenty of weapons, but if he’s constantly on the run, it won’t be simple for him to take advantage of them.
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke talks about the Spartans' win over Indiana in the Big Ten opener The Detroit News
The Spartans have already had their bye, so there won’t be much time to get healthy. And, quite frankly, Michigan State is ailing at this point. Scott did not play against Indiana while Beedle and Chewins were limited, but the Spartans took more hits throughout the game. Right guard Kevin Jarvis (ankle) and wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. (ankle) both left the game and didn’t return, as did backup wide receiver Cam Chambers. Cornerback Josh Butler was hurt late in the game for a defense that at least got defensive end Jacub Panasiuk back after he missed the Arizona State game. Coach Mark Dantonio said he didn’t believe many were serious injuries, but Michigan State is in no position — especially on the offensive line — to be running out a bunch of new guys.
Dantonio often says the punt is the most important play in football, to which many roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, sure.” Well, the Spartans are quickly finding out how vital having a reliable punter can be as they played their first game without fifth-year senior Jake Hartbarger, who is out up to eight weeks with a leg injury. MSU tried two different punters on Saturday, first using redshirt freshman Tyler Hunt then walk-on Bryce Baringer, who joined the team last week. Neither was terribly effective and there’s a chance backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi could still get a shot. The whole situation got especially ridiculous on Saturday when Lombardi, Hunt and Baringer were all wearing No. 12 in warm-ups in an effort to confuse Indiana. How that affected things is hard to imagine, but until Hartbarger is healthy, the punting issues will continue to be a concern.
Stuffing the run
It wasn’t all bad for Michigan State in the victory on Saturday as the defense was once again dominant against the run, allowing just 29 yards to a team that entered the game averaging 235 yards in three victories. The Spartans were hit with one big play in the passing game, but for the first time this season they showed a pass rush that bothered the Hoosiers. Michigan State was credited with nine tackles for loss, including four sacks, though it seemed it could have been given a couple more if not for some odd decisions. Even so, the pressure was on for most of the game thanks to defensive end Kenny Willekes as well as tackle Raequan Williams being disruptive in the middle. It’s something the Spartans have been unable to do consistently the past two seasons, but if they can manage to keep it going as the season progresses, the Spartans will certainly become more of a complete defense.