Bob Wojnowski, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau preview the UM-Maryland and MSU-Northwestern games this weekend. The Detroit News, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Balance.
It’s a simple concept and it’s what Michigan State attempts to achieve on offense every week. It often doesn’t lead to eye-popping stats that would make fantasy football owners proud, but it’s proven quite effective for Mark Dantonio and his staff.
Thanks to a typically physical running game with a suffocating, in-your-face defense, the Spartans have won plenty under Dantonio’s approach, piling up victories and earning championships along the way.
But now, four games into Dantonio’s 12th season lead the Spartans, that offense that still puts achieving balance at the top of the list of priorities, is stuck in the mud, barely in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in scoring at 29.3 points a game after averaging just 24.5 points a game last season.
“Overall, we’re not anywhere close (to) where we want to be,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “The word ‘potential’ has been out there since January, and we certainly haven’t reached that yet. We certainly haven’t come anywhere close to that. We talk about what we’re capable of as an offense, and I think we all know that we haven’t gotten there yet.”
It’s not what most expected for No. 20 Michigan State (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) as it prepares to host Northwestern (1-3, 1-1) at noon Saturday. With the bulk of the offense returning from last season, quarterback Brian Lewerke and a stable of receivers included, the belief was this offense would take off with a chance to match those in 2014 and ’15.
Instead, it’s mostly been frustration, with Warner drawing most of the heat from the fans for play-calling, making him the man in charge of achieving that balance his boss wants.
“We try and make sure we’re running the ball enough,” Warner said. “We might not be getting the yards that we want to get running the football, but I think it’s still important that we keep banging away in there and try and get positive yards. It’s definitely a difficult thing to try and weigh, especially if you’re throwing the ball well. If you’re throwing the ball well, obviously the tendency is to just keep throwing it. But we still need to put the ball in our tailbacks’ hands.”
While throwing the ball well hardly has been a given this season, as Lewerke has thrown five interceptions through four games, running the ball has been much worse. Michigan State is better than just one other Big Ten team, averaging 129.8 yards a game on the ground, good for 104th in the nation.
MSU offensive coordinator Dave Warner on his unit's progress this season The Detroit News
“Obviously, we know have not run the ball well, but a lot of that so far is because we haven’t gotten those big, explosive plays,” Warner said. “We’ve been somewhat steady, getting the 3-, 4-, 5-yard gains — that’s not enough. But what has been sort of missing is those explosive runs.”
Getting to the reason why the offensive hasn’t taken off yet is tougher. Is some of it play-calling? Sure, but to put it all on that sole reason would be silly. It’s the same reason the success of 2014 — when MSU set nearly every major offensive program record — wasn’t only because of the players.
But there have been some odd calls, the jet sweep inside the 5 by backup receiver Brandon Sowards at Indiana at the top of the list. And that balance has been tougher in specific games. While Michigan State is running the ball 56 percent of the time and throwing it 44 percent overall, last week’s win over Central Michigan lacked balance. In that 31-20 win, the Spartans ran the ball 47 times to just 25 passes. On first down, they ran the ball 21 times to just 12 pass attempts.
Dantonio says he lets his coordinators coach, “empowering” them to make the calls. He’ll interject here and there, but Warner has been on his staff since 2004 at Cincinnati, so there’s an understanding.
“I know what he wants, no doubt,” Warner said. “I know what he wants. I mean, we meet before games, and it’s normally the same talk about what he’s looking for as we go through the game plan offensively. It’s normally the same thing that he tells me, so I know going into the game what he’s looking for and what he wants.”
The coaching end is just one part of it. The other is the personnel, an aspect that has been hampered by injuries. Running back LJ Scott, wide receivers Darrell Stewart Jr. and Jalen Nailor as well as offensive linemen Cole Chewins, Kevin Jarvis, David Beedle and Luke Campbell have all dealt with injuries. And last week, wide receiver Cody White was lost to a broken hand.
It’s all led to a unit that has lacked cohesion, something that has potentially led to Lewerke’s inconsistent play.
“I think whether he said this or feels this, I don’t know, but with, I think he may have been pressing a little bit through four games resulting in some turnovers,” Warner said. “So, just play the game. Let guys do their job, whether it’s receivers or handing the ball off or dropping the ball down to the back, just let them do the work. I think in the long run he’ll play better and I think we can do better.”
For his part, Lewerke believes his made most of the right decisions, he just needs to execute better.
So, like most instances in football, it’s a collective effort. That’s the case when things are rolling and when they’re not. The Spartans hope to get some players back this week, but they won’t be 100 percent.
Until then, the work toward a complete, balanced offensive effort continues.
“I think we're all chasing perfection and that's what I'm doing as a coach,” Dantonio said.