Matt Charboneau and John Niyo of The Detroit News analyze Michigan State's loss to Ohio State. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Five takeaways from Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News following Michigan State's 26-6 loss to Ohio State on Saturday.
Lombardi should start over dinged-up Lewerke
The quarterback position has been at the center of the discussion most of the season for Michigan State, but even more so since junior Brian Lewerke injured his right throwing shoulder in the victory over Penn State in mid-October. He’s struggled since then and has said on several occasions that he has pain when he throws, which makes it odd that coach Mark Dantonio has stuck with Lewerke, who has started each game expect for the win over Purdue. Redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi started against the Boilermakers and excelled, which makes the choice to go with Lewerke even more perplexing.
Lombardi came in for Lewerke on Saturday in the loss to Ohio State and provided a spark before things leveled out, but with any shot at winning the division now gone and Lewerke still not healthy, it only makes sense to start Lombardi the next two weeks against Nebraska and Rutgers. It will give Lombardi a chance to find some rhythm and Lewerke the opportunity to get healthy. If he’s good to go by a bowl game, then Lewerke should play. Until them, it seems obvious: Lombardi should play.
Run game grounded, again
A week after breaking out for 269 yards rushing, the Spartans reverted back to not being able to run the ball in the loss to Ohio State. Michigan State managed just 54 yards on the ground against the Buckeyes, its second-lowest output of the season, bettering only the 15 yards gained in the loss to Michigan. There was some hope the running attack from last week would carry over, considering the Buckeyes have had some problems stopping the run this season, however, those hopes proved to be unfounded.
What makes things even worse is that 47 of the rushing yards came on one play. That was when Lombardi broke free early in the second half. Michigan State’s running backs were not a factor in any way. Connor Heyward carried four times for 1 yard while La’Darius Jefferson gained 4 yards on two carries. So, instead of building momentum in the running game, the Spartans took a significant step backward, even as they started the same offensive line for the third straight game.
Dismal on third down
Michigan State entered Saturday’s game vs. Ohio State ranking last in the Big Ten in third-down conversions on offense and did nothing to change that statistic. The Spartans converted just 2 of 16 in the loss to the Buckeyes after failing on all eight tries in the first half. The performance on third down has led to poor time of possession in two of Michigan State’s biggest games this season — against Michigan and Ohio State. Against the Wolverines, the Spartans didn’t convert a single third down in 12 tries and allowed Michigan to hold the ball for more than 41 minutes. The Buckeyes had it for 37:29, wearing down the defense and never allowing the Michigan State offense to build any momentum.
The lack of running the ball has been a big part of the problem as Michigan State often finds itself in third-and-long situations, but better quarterback play would help those numbers, as well.
Special teams often have been a critical reason for Michigan State’s success, and this season the punting game became a source of concern the moment Jake Hartbarger was lost for the season when he broke his leg in Week 2 at Arizona State. After redshirt freshman Tyler Hunt was lost to a torn ACL, things have been handled by walk-on Bryce Baringer, who has been inconsistent. Dantonio went to punter No. 4 on Saturday with freshman William Przystup, who did well enough to likely keep the job.
While punting might not seem like the biggest issue, an effective punter was on display for the Buckeyes as Drue Chrisman downed five straight inside the Michigan State 6. Could the Spartans have done a better job blocking the Ohio State gunners? Probably? But it was another example of opponents getting the advantage in special teams.
Willekes shines again
Not everything is bad for Michigan State, especially when it comes to the defense. The Spartans were outstanding once again, holding the top-scoring offense in the Big Ten to 17 points — seven came from the OSU defense and two were on the intentional safety — as the Buckeyes entered the game averaging better than 42 points a game. One of the big reasons the defense has been so effective has been the play of junior defensive end Kenny Willekes.
The former walk-on was dominant against the Buckeyes, collecting a career-high 13 tackles along with 3.5 tackles for loss, also a career-best. He added a sack as well as batting down a pass as Ohio State simply couldn’t block Willekes. He now has 17 tackles for loss this season along with 8.5 sacks, sparking a Michigan State defense that is waiting for the Spartans’ offense to come close to matching the same sort of production.