East Lansing — When Michigan State faced a fourth-and-1 deep in its own end Saturday against Northwestern, trailing by three and desperate to keep its hopes alive, coach Mark Dantonio decided the Spartans needed to go for it.
There were two timeouts left and more than two minutes to play, but in that moment, the Michigan State coach thought his team’s best bet was to run the ball and pick up the yard. In most cases the previous three seasons, that would mean LJ Scott was getting the ball.
But on Saturday, Scott was where he had been the previous two games — on the sideline in uniform but amounting to nothing more than a spectator. That’s because, for the third straight game, an ankle injury he suffered in Week 2 at Arizona State kept him from playing.
So, the Spartans turned to sophomore Connor Heyward, who was stuffed for no gain. Three plays later, Northwestern was in the end zone and the victory was in hand.
“We just needed a yard,” Dantonio said after the game. “If we have a yard we can continue the drive and we've got plenty of time to score.
“I was pretty certain that we were going to get the first down so I was playing the percentages but taking an aggressive approach. I'm sure that most people out there could've punted on fourth-and-1, down by three, two something to go. Like I said, it's a game of inches.”
Those inches have been hard to come by with an offensive line that has suffered multiple injuries, but not having Scott has made it even tougher. The Spartans’ leading rusher each of the past two seasons isn’t far from 100 percent, but he’s made the decision the last three games that he’s not healthy enough to be effective.
“He’s making that decision based on how he feels, his cutting ability etc.,” Dantonio said. “He’s close. He needs to make that decision. It’s not fair for me to sit there and say, ‘You need to play.’ I think that is every individual player’s decision to make.
“I think he’s close, but I don’t think he feels he can cut as successfully as he usually does, so he makes that decision and I’m OK with whatever he needs to do. At some point, he’ll be ready to play.”
While it might be easier to play with a bad ankle at some positions, it’s not as simple for a running back or a receiver. Junior Darrell Stewart Jr. played against Northwestern with a bad ankle but only was on the field for a handful of plays and wasn’t nearly as effective as he is when healthy.
So, while Scott at 85 percent might be better than some, he’s decided he needs to be 100 percent, something the Spartans could use. It’s not that Heyward has been bad, and Scott’s absence has provided opportunity for redshirt freshman Weston Bridges and freshman La’Darius Jefferson. However, Scott is the No. 1 guy and his absence has created a void in the running game.
“LJ is critical to winning, and he's a really dynamic back that we need,” Heyward said. “Me kind of playing off him and him playing off me, so often we put teams on their heels. LJ is a very good back and hopefully he can get back as soon as possible.”
Scott has tried to contribute in other ways.
“He’s been a fantastic team player,” co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner said. “Obviously, he wants to play as bad as anybody, but he is still a leader in our running back room. On game day, I know he’s down there, he’s with those guys, he’s talking to them, he’s taking them over to the offensive line for adjustments between series. He’s been fantastic. Couldn’t ask for anything more from him.”
Except, maybe, for him carrying the ball. With a trip to Penn State this week and the season on the brink, Scott back in the lineup could provide the spark the offense needs.
Michigan State at Penn State
Kickoff: 3:30 Saturday, Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.
Records: Michigan State 3-2, 1-1 Big Ten; Penn State 4-1, 1-1
Line: Penn State by 13.5