Michigan State: Five things we learned from the Redbox Bowl

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Major Applewhite

What we learned from Michigan State's loss to Oregon in the Redbox Bowl on Monday:

One of the worst

Even with head coach Mark Dantonio’s input, the offense once again failed to be effective, getting held without a touchdown for the third time in the last four games. It’s been a problem all season and comes after a 2017 when the production wasn’t much better. There were some wrinkles – namely running plenty of plays in the pistol formation – and the Spartans spent most of the game going without a huddle. And, despite moving the ball well at times in between the 20-yard lines, the result was the same – an offense that can’t find the end zone, can’t cash in when in the red zone, and one that was unable to take advantage of prime field position the defense provided on a regular basis. The reasons are many – from play-calling to execution to some bad injury luck – but it was clear that a little more than a month off did little to improve an offense that ranked as one of the worst in the nation in 2018.

Heavy scrutiny

The status of the offensive coaching staff is probably the hottest topic headed into the offseason, namely whether Dantonio will decide to make a change at the coordinator position, where Dave Warner and Jim Bollman have shared duties since 2013. Warner has taken most of the heat as the Spartans’ play-caller and it would seem to be the spot most likely to see a change. But outside of wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel, the rest of the offensive staff – quarterbacks coach Brad Salem and offensive line coach Mark Staten included – will be under heavy scrutiny as well. There are proven options out there like Matt Canada, who was the interim coach at Maryland during the DJ Durkin fiasco, and Major Applewhite, who was just fired as head coach at Houston. Dantonio didn’t offer a firm response on the status of his assistants after the loss to Oregon, possibly leaving the door open for change. However, he’s also hasn’t shown a tendency to make significant moves like this, especially with coaches like Warner, who have been with Dantonio since he took over at Cincinnati in 2004.

Brian Lewerke

Painful to watch

Trying to determine the reasons for the offense’s woes outside of coaching has been difficult. Dantonio talked a lot about injuries after Monday's loss, and while it might sound like an excuse to some, the number of injuries to key players was a reality. Only right tackle Jordan Reid started every game at the same position while players like QB Brian Lewerke, RB LJ Scott and WR Felton Davis missed significant time, as well as wide receivers Cody White and Darrell Stewart Jr. How much would a healthy group have helped the offense is tougher to determine, but it’s clear it played a significant factor, maybe nowhere more than with Lewerke. The junior entered the season as a darkhorse Heisman candidate and a top-rated quarterback in the NFL Draft. But he struggled early behind a banged-up offensive line, and after he hurt his shoulder in the win over Penn State, he was never the same. The zip was back on his throws vs. Oregon, but the confidence appeared to be lacking compared to the player who gained more than 3,300 yards as a sophomore.

Defensive gems

Of course, the offensive issues are even more painful for Spartan fans when it’s clear that this might be the best defense Dantonio has ever had, and that’s saying something considering the units Michigan State had in 2013 and 2015, both Big Ten championship years. There’s not much more this group can do, as was evident against the Ducks. The Spartans held Oregon to 203 yards, more than 240 less than its season average, and limited the Ducks to seven points after they entered the game averaging better than 37. The 37 rushing yards allowed also likely assured the Spartans finish the season as the best in the nation vs. the run. Even the early departure of cornerback Justin Layne didn’t slow the Spartans as junior Josh Butler was rarely tested and sophomore Josiah Scott was outstanding, breaking up four passes while being named the game’s defensive MVP. Assuming Layne is the only one to leave early, expect the Spartans to be just as good in 2019, a prospect that makes significant offensive improvement vital to Michigan State’s success.

Looking ahead 

What the depth chart will look like by next fall is something that will hinge on the decisions of linebacker Joe Bachie and defensive end Kenny Willekes. The juniors have both said they’ll wait until after the bowl game to make a decision on whether they’ll be back for next season, and it’s hard to gauge how much the broken leg suffered by Willekes in the Redbox Bowl will have an impact. If they’re back, Michigan State has few holes to fill as they’d lose three starters on defense – Layne, LB Andrew Dowell and S Khari Willis – and three on offense – Davis, Scott and TE Matt Sokol. Spring practice will reveal plenty about who steps into starting roles. Butler played well and could have the edge over a handful of younger corners while freshman Xavier Henderson could have the inside track to step in for Willis. On offense, the biggest question is who becomes the primary tailback. Sophomore Connor Heyward got the bulk of the work in Scott’s absence, but it will be worth watching to see if roles expand for freshmen La’Darius Jefferson and Elijah Collins.