Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio previews the Spartans' game against Tulsa on Friday night. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — There’s only one thing certain about Michigan State’s offense entering the season-opener Friday night against Tulsa.
“We won’t be in the T,” coach Mark Dantonio said, followed by a quick smile.
Nope. The Spartans won’t be using an offensive formation that first became popular in the Hoover administration. However, what exactly it will look like come 7 p.m. at Spartan Stadium remains just about anyone’s guess.
Everyone’s wondering because those around the Michigan State program have been tight-lipped about what new coordinator Brad Salem has been working on for the last eight months.
“I just don’t talk about it,” fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Lewerke said matter-of-factly. “Coach D hasn’t been talking about it, so I’m not talking about it. I guess we’ll see on Friday.”
Fine, but will it be noticeably different from what the Spartans have been running for the better part of Dantonio’s first 12 seasons at the helm?
“Some things will be a little bit different,” fifth-year senior left guard Tyler Higby said, “but a lot of it we’ll just have to see.”
The defensive guys, who see the Spartans’ offense every day, are keeping things just as quiet.
“If everybody else is sworn to secrecy then I am too,” fifth-year senior safety David Dowell said.
OK, so no one is budging. No hints are coming about what Michigan State’s offense will look like once the season kicks off, and that’s just how Dantonio wants it.
“I think everyone wants to try to keep everything a little bit behind the curtain, so people don't prepare for you,” Dantonio said. “Everything is about practicing for your opponent, trying to simulate what they do. That's usually the way things work both sides of the ball and special teams. History is the best indicator of the future, things of that nature. You want to try and guard against those type of things, especially when you made a couple changes.”
Those changes aren’t likely to be anything drastic. An offense that has been primarily a pro-style attack with a power running game isn’t suddenly going to spread the field with four and five receivers and throw the ball 50 times a game.
But that doesn’t mean things aren’t changing, the changes might just be more subtle.
“It's been kind of the same,” junior wide receiver Cody White said before catching himself just a bit. “We don't really want to give away our scheme or anything, but we're ready just to play honestly.
“Our confidence level … we never want to get too high or too low. So our confidence level always stays steady. And just thinking about last year, we kind of want to just throw that in the past and starting the new year. It’s 2019 this year, so we're going to start fresh and just keep everybody on board and try to make some plays this season.”
It’s hard to imagine not making more plays than 2018 when Michigan State averaged just 18.7 points a game, better than only four other programs in the country. The Spartans ranked 116th in the nation in total offense, averaging just more than 342 yards a game.
Much of the struggle can be attributed to the rash of injuries the Spartans suffered at every position. From Lewerke to virtually the entire receiving corps and nearly the whole offensive line, continuity was hardly ever something the Spartans had.
However, there were questions to about game plans and play-calling, which led Dantonio to shuffle his staff, moving Salem from quarterbacks coach to coordinator and running backs coach and moving former co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner, the primary play-caller, back to quarterbacks. Co-coordinator Jim Bollman took over the offensive line and Mark Staten went from offensive line to tight ends while Don Treadwell came over from the defense to lead the wide receivers.
Those moves would seem to indicate sweeping change but still, it’s change. How that all translates to what takes place on the field will be unveiled as the season progresses, but one other thing is clear — the players are buying in.
“I feel great about it,” Lewerke said. “I'm sure everyone else does around here. I’m sure our defense would say the same. I think we’ve given them a much better, not look, but we just been playing a lot harder this camp than we have in the past.”
Whether that look comes Friday night is anyone’s guess. Michigan State has typically held things back in early season nonconference games, following Dantonio’s belief of not giving away too much.
However, this season opener is different. The offense has reached a point where it needs to prove itself. Fair or not, the last time this offense took the field it was busy being held without a touchdown in three of its last four games.
Now is the time to show what they’ve been working on.
“I don't think we’re unleashing it because we've been doing it all fall camp, in winter conditioning and right after the Oregon game,” junior running back Connor Heyward said. “Coach D made changes on the offensive side of the ball and we made an immediate switch, so it's really not anything new to us.
“It will be something new to y'all in a way. I don't know, I can't really say what we're doing because obviously Coach D hasn’t said anything about it but we're excited about this and you guys will be able to see the changes hopefully.”
Tulsa at Michigan State
Kickoff: 7 Friday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Line: MSU by 23