Michigan State: Five things we learned vs. Northwestern

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Five takeaways from Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News following Michigan State's 29-19 loss to Northwestern on Saturday.

Michigan State receiver Laress Nelson gets buried by Northwestern tacklers in the third quarter Saturday in East Lansing.

Lay it on the line

The offensive line is bad — really bad. Some of that could be chalked up to injuries, but to this point, there’s no other way to describe the way this unit has played. Take away Felton Davis’ 48-yard run on a reverse and the Spartans ran the ball for 48 yards with their top two running backs gaining 27 yards on 11 carries. When Michigan State needed a yard to keep a drive alive in the fourth quarter and trailing by 3, it couldn’t get it — and it wasn’t even close. Pass protection hasn’t been as bad, but late in the game, it started to break down and quarterback Brian Lewerke was under pressure. A quick fix likely isn’t coming as guard David Beedle left the game early with what appeared to be an arm injury, and MSU finished with Blake Bueter and Matt Carrick — two redshirt freshmen — at the guard spots. The production up front has been lacking all season and it only gets tougher the next two weeks with Penn State and Michigan looming.

Lewerke takes step back

He’s not getting a lot of help, but quarterback Brian Lewerke has regressed from last season and is not the difference-maker many believed he could be. He threw another interception in the loss to Northwestern, his sixth of the season after throwing seven all of last season. The injuries up front and at the skill positions haven’t helped, as Lewerke does not look comfortable in the pocket, but his decision-making has been questionable, and his accuracy has not been what it needs to be, as evidenced by a fade pass to Felton Davis in the final minutes that wasn’t close. He won’t be able to turn the offense around on his own, but until Lewerke starts playing like the quarterback he has shown glimpses of being, the Michigan State offense is going to struggle.

Brian Lewerke threw his sixth interception of the season Saturday against Northwestern. He threw seven all of last season.

Defensive breakdowns

There’s no arguing how good Michigan State’s defense is against the run, and that was hammered home on Saturday as the Spartans gave up just eight yards to the Wildcats. But Northwestern was the latest team to torch Michigan State through the air as QB Clayton Thorson threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns. It’s almost as if the tough run defense is forcing teams to play into the Spartans’ weakness, an odd position to be in for a defense. There were two turnovers and MSU got decent pressure on Thorson, at times, but it’s a handful of plays that are killing the Spartans. On Saturday, there was a coverage bust for a 77-yard touchdown, then a critical unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on tackle Naquan Jones. The result is a defense that is playing well most of the time, but breaking down when it matters most.

More: Wojo: Spartans sputter and fall, can't find their missing offense

Injuries mount

It’s usually seen as an excuse, but listing the Spartans’ injuries by the end of each game gives a pretty good idea of why the offense continues to have no rhythm. Running back LJ Scott missed his third straight game with an ankle injury while Cody White missed his first with a broken hand. Wide receiver Jalen Nailor was out for a second game while receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. was back on a limited basis. Up front, guard Kevin Jarvis (ankle) missed his second straight game while guard David Beedle was lost early in the game to an arm injury. Left tackle Cole Chewins continues to slowly work back and played the most he has all season on Saturday, but he’s still not 100 percent. Others have been given an opportunity — namely Cam Chambers at receiver — but the Spartans desperately need to get healthy.

Bewildered, befuddled

For one of the few times in his tenure, coach Mark Dantonio seemed overwhelmed by what was happening on the field. Afterward he even talked about it, saying it felt like the game was “spinning out of control.” There were some questionable decisions late in the game, like going for it on fourth-and-1 from deep in their own end with the Spartans still had two timeouts left. Or deciding to go on fourth down from the Northwestern 1 in the final minute when MSU needed two scores, opting not to kick the field goal. None of those choices would have guaranteed anything if they were changed, but it’s the impression that Dantonio and his staff — especially co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner — gave that there seems to be few answers. Maybe that’s natural when it seems like so little is going right, but Dantonio and Warner didn’t sound like they had many ideas in the minutes after Saturday’s loss.