Five takeaways from Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News following Michigan State's 24-3 victory over Maryland on Saturday.
A week after Rocky Lombardi added some spark to the offense, the redshirt freshman was back on the bench and junior Brian Lewerke was back as the team’s starting quarterback. Lewerke didn’t fare well, going 11-for-20 for just 87 yards and throwing an interception, but thanks to an impressive running attack, it didn’t make much of a difference against Maryland. What was odd about the decision to go back to Lewerke, who has now started 23 games in his career, is the fact he is not 100 percent healthy. Lewerke said the shoulder injury that kept him out against Purdue is still not completely healed but that he thought he could contribute, and coach Mark Dantonio essentially left the decision up to his quarterback.
That might have worked this week, but it seems odd to use a player who isn’t physically ready when you have a backup who is. Not to mention that backup played well and brought some energy to the offense. Where it goes over the next three weeks is hard to tell, but if Lewerke continues to struggle throwing the ball and Dantonio sticks with him, it could start to create problems that go far deeper than simply completing a pass.
Paving the way
Michigan State hasn’t had a 100-yard rusher since LJ Scott in last season’s Holiday Bowl. So, when sophomore Connor Heyward broke out for 157 yards in the win over Maryland, the Spartans were overdue. It wasn’t just about one player, however, as Heyward was back in the starting lineup with Scott out again with an injury. Instead, this was about the entire rushing attack that gained 269 yards against the Terrapins. It was, by far, Michigan State’s best effort all season, the previous high being the 165 yards it gained in the season-opening win over Utah State.
Some of this week’s success had to do with the opponent and the fact Maryland was offering little resistance up front. But to completely dismiss any progress the offensive line has made would be unfair. They’re still not 100 percent up front, as sophomore center Matt Allen and fifth-year senior guard David Beedle were out again with injuries. But that group has started to find at least some traction the last couple of weeks, even if the rushing numbers two weeks ago against Purdue weren’t eye-popping. They’re still a long way from being a unit that can control the game against some of the top teams, but there’s at least a feeling going into next week’s matchup with Ohio State that running the ball can work.
Passing the test
There hasn’t been much question this season but Saturday’s victory over Maryland was another example of the level to which Michigan State’s defense is playing this season. The Spartans allowed Maryland to gain only 100 total yards a week after it picked up 712, and for a running attack that was averaging better than 246 yards a game, Michigan State stuffed it by giving up just 26 yards on the ground. Much of that is thanks to the play of defensive tackles like Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk along, with a linebacking crew led by middle linebacker Joe Bachie.
Where the Spartans have improved is against the pass. After getting gouged for big yardage early in the season, Michigan State has started to shut things down. It gave up just 192 yards to Penn state and 212 to Michigan before allowing 277 to a Purdue team that had been among the best pass offenses in the conference. How well it fares against an Ohio State team that, even with all its struggles this year, is still putting up points remains to be seen. But for a unit that is No. 1 in the nation against the run, it’s quite a sign that the pass defense is trending in the right direction.
Injuries have been a significant problem for Michigan State all season, primarily on offense. Trying to gauge exactly the difference it has made in the win-loss column is difficult, but it certainly hasn’t helped. But while the Spartans have lost a player or two for the season, they are starting to get some of their playmakers back, one each this week on both offense and defense.
Sophomore wide receiver Cody White was back after missing the last four games with a broken hand he suffered in the Central Michigan victory. He had just two catches against Maryland, but with Felton Davis out for the season, the Spartans are glad to get White back. On defense, sophomore cornerback Josiah Scott played for the first time after injuring his knee early in preseason camp. He started and played most of the game, giving Michigan State two top-level corners opposite junior Justin Layne, just in time to take on Ohio State next week.
Not so special
The special teams have been hit and miss this season for Michigan State and have been another area affected by injuries. Losing fifth-year senior punter Jake Hartbarger for the season in Week 2 was a tough break, but so was losing backup Tyler Hunt to a practice injury two weeks ago. It has forced the Spartans to turn to walk-on Bryce Baringer, who had punts of 16 and 8 yards on Saturday. Some of that was the wind, but not having a consistent punter plays a huge role in the field-position game.
The punt returning also has been hindered as White was the primary return man before his injury. Sophomore Laress Nelson moved in but he has missed the last couple of games with an injury. Fifth-year senior Brandon Sowards takes care of it now, but he’s tasked simply with securing the possession.