Bob Wojnowski, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau preview Week 5 of the college football season. The Detroit News
East Lansing — When things aren’t going well, Mark Staten knows only one way to respond — by looking in the mirror.
Michigan State’s offensive line and assistant head coach is experiencing that now as the Spartans’ offensive line has struggled through three games. But thanks to his days as a player at Miami (Ohio) under the late Randy Walker, there will be no finger-pointing.
“I won’t make any excuses,” Staten said. “I’m a Randy Walker — God rest his soul —thumb-pointer. And so, I’ve got to do a better job of leading these guys from the sidelines and making sure, going over each thing they see, each play, and as we go through the week giving them that confidence.”
That confidence has been slow to come this season as No. 21 Michigan State (2-1, 1-0 Big Ten) has had its share of problems offensively, primarily running the ball. Much of that is on the offensive line, though as coach Mark Dantonio has pointed out often, it’s a team issue that falls on the blocking of tight ends and receivers as well as some of the decision-making from the running backs.
So, no, it’s not all on the front five. However, there’s no doubt things need to improve. Entering Saturday’s matchup with Central Michigan, the Spartans rank 112th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 119.7 yards a game.
Add in the four sacks they’ve allowed, and the cohesion seen from the offensive line late last season hasn’t materialized.
“Consistency is definitely a problem,” said junior Tyler Higby, who started the first two games at center before moving to left tackle last week. “But we’re not frustrated. We know what we’re capable of. Every day it’s always technique with us. Most of the time we’re assignment-sound, but we’re working on technique every day.
“A lot of times four guys are doing the right job and it’s one guy that loses a block or a guy falls off a block or something. So it’s all five guys with technique and being assignment-sound every play.”
MSU offensive line coach Mark Staten talks about his unit's play through the first three games. The Detroit News
Staten believes, like most seasons, his unit will get better each week.
“We don’t have preseason games,” Staten said. “We have preseason scrimmages, and you see the animals out there, the run-stoppers that we’ve got. So that’s why it seems like since we’ve been here we just continue to climb the mountain, and by the time it gets to November we’re clicking on all cylinders.”
The Spartans lost just one starter, however, from last season, which makes the slow start seem confusing. But that’s a quick glance at the situation. A closer look shows an offensive line that hasn’t had the same starters yet this season.
Replacing Brian Allen at center has been a primary obstacle while at left tackle, Michigan State’s starter for 16 straight games — junior Cole Chewins — has been hurt since last spring and is just now getting a handful of snaps as he eases back into playing shape. That led to sophomore right tackle Luke Campbell moving to left tackle and sophomore Jordan Reid getting his first starts at right tackle.
Fifth-year senior David Beedle at left guard and sophomore Kevin Jarvis at right guard seemed like the sure things, but each has suffered injuries already this season, causing plenty of shuffling. Higby moved to left tackle last week as sophomore Matt Allen got his first start at center, while Campbell moved to left guard with Beedle banged up.
When Jarvis went down with an ankle injury against Indiana, he was replaced by Beedle. Then Campbell got hurt, so Beedle moved over to the left side and former walk-on Blake Bueter was in at right guard.
It’s now that Staten’s philosophy of making his lineman as interchangeable as possible is being tested.
“They have played a lot of snaps,” Staten said. “I could pull out from scrimmages, from things of that nature. We track that all spring, all how many they have at each position. Though you may not have seen it, the public may not have seen it, they’ve been working together for quite some time.”
Which means the complete game Staten says the Spartans are seeking can’t be far off.
Chewins is slowly getting back to form, and it appears the injuries to Beedle and Campbell are not serious. Jarvis’ status is the only one that isn’t as clear, though Dantonio said this week there were no long-term injuries coming out of the Indiana game.
So the pieces should be in place for the offensive line’s progression to continue. If it does, Staten and his group will be happy to let the spotlight shine on those more accustomed to it.
“It’s a process. Being an offensive lineman, you toil away in your own little space, and it’s generally when something bad happens,” Staten said. “When (Brian) Lewerke throws that touchdown, they don’t say ‘Hey, you see that great block?’ You see and you celebrate those guys. We just give each other high-fives and continue working.
“Oftentimes with the offensive line, it’s when bad things happen that we’re noticed. But it’s also in our nature to just kind of wipe it off and get back to work.”
Staten will be there working, too, critiquing himself as much as the players.