Same story: MSU's offense lags, defense dominates against Tulsa
East Lansing — Things were going to be different this year.
At least, that was the message coming out of Michigan State. After the Spartans endured a miserable offensive season in 2018, a reshuffling of the coaching staff was supposed to lead to a revitalized attack for the Spartans.
It was a move coach Mark Dantonio made that was questioned by some. Instead of making wholesale changes he simply moved some coaches around, promoting Brad Salem from quarterbacks coach to coordinator in an effort to breath some life into Michigan State’s offense.
The season opener Friday night against Tulsa was the first chance for the Spartans to prove they were on the verge of turning things around. And while No. 18 Michigan State came away with the 28-7 victory, it hardly walked out of Spartan Stadium feeling like it had turned the corner.
The Spartans (1-0) managed only 303 total yards and ran for just 108 while it had drive after drive stall out, three in the first half that began in Tulsa territory but ended with just a field goal. In the end, Michigan State managed one offensive touchdown on an impressive opening drive but did little after that. The defense, dominant as ever, held Tulsa to a program-record minus-73 yards rushing, had 13 tackles for loss and forced three turnovers.
By the second half, though, the boos were prevalent from the home crowd.
“I mean my mindset is positive,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “I'm still pushing forward trying to be the guy the offense and you know the crowd reaction you can't control that. Obviously, it was probably right for them to do so in a sense. The offense was lacking, but you know we just got to be better, stay positive and just trying to learn everything we can from this game.”
Added wide receiver Cody White: “It's hard to block it out. Obviously, you hear (the boos). Honestly, tonight it was deservingly so. We did not play to our expectations, so next week we’ve got to keep coming and raise our standard and be able to perform at a level that we're supposed to.”
That level on Friday was similar to the one that was displayed most of last season. Michigan State averaged just 2.7 yards a carry, was 6-for-19 on third down and failed on 3-of-4 fourth-down attempts. Three drives in the first half started in Tulsa territory but all three ended in field goals.
“I keep saying there's no magic play,” Dantonio said. “Everybody runs outside zone, everybody runs inside zone, everybody runs power, everybody runs counters. It's execution. You have to get fast to the edge of the defense at times. You've got to outnumber them at times and sometimes they out number you.
“We got some dropped balls. I thought Lewerke was sharp. He threw the ball with velocity and he scrambled out of there well. He made some plays and when your quarterback’s playing well great things can happen, so we'll stay the course in that regard. I thought the play calling was pretty good, but you've got to execute.”
On top of the offensive problems, Michigan State committed 14 penalties for 122 yards. It was hardly just an offensive issue, too, as a roughing the passer call on defensive end Kenny Willekes kept alive Tulsa’s only scoring drive while a holding call negated running back Elijah Collins’ touchdown run in the second half.
“I was sitting on the sideline and Kenny looked at me and asked me what was going on and I said, ‘We are way too sloppy tonight,’” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “Offensively, we were sloppy. Special teams I think we had two or three penalties; that'll kill your drive. Our offense was backed up to the 10-yard line a couple times late in the game. Obviously, Kenny knows, that late hit; we always talk about we can't shoot ourselves in the foot late in the game. Without that penalty, they don't go down and score.
“You look back at some games last year and that is what happened to us. We will learn from this and we will get better.”
None of the offensive numbers were good. Lewerke was 21-for-37 passing for 192 yards while Connor Heyward’s 43 yards led the ground attack and Darrell Stewart Jr. had six receptions for 56 yards.
The defensive numbers, however, were typical Michigan State. Tulsa’s two running backs — Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor — combined for minus-1 yards on 13 carries while Michigan State had 13 tackles for loss, including six sacks. The Spartans also forced three turnovers and scored a defensive touchdown when Willekes recovered a fumble in the end zone.
“I thought we played very confident on defense,” Willekes said. “You see a lot of young guys stepping up, a lot of guys getting pressure on the quarterback, and a lot of guys creating turnovers. Those are two big areas we emphasized on in the offseason. You see a lot of guys improve in that area and take it personally.”
The opening drive of the game created the most optimism of the night. The Spartans marched down the field and capped things off with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Lewerke to Heyward. From there, things started to stall.
Defense and special teams took over as junior Dominique Long blocked a punt on the first play of the second quarter. However, the Spartans failed to pick up a first down but got a 38-yard field goal from Matt Coghlin to take a 10-0 lead with 14:03 left in the first half. On the next Tulsa drive, a bad snap was recovered by Willekes deep in Tulsa territory. But after three penalties, Michigan State again settled for a field goal, this time a 47-yarder from Coghlin that gave the Spartans a 13-0 lead with 9:59 left in the second quarter.
Another bad snap on Tulsa’s next drive went out of the end zone for a safety to give Michigan State a 15-0 lead before Raequan Williams forced a fumble by Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith that was recovered in the end zone by Willekes to put the Spartans ahead, 22-0, with 4:49 to play in the half.
Coghlin added a 44-yard field goal after an interception by Antjuan Simmons before Tulsa closed the half with its only scoring drive, taking advantage of a Willekes roughing the passer call on third-and-8 to march down the field and get on the board when Smith hit Sam Crawford Jr. with a 28-yard touchdown pass to make it 25-7 at the break.
Michigan State extended the lead to 28-7 on a Coghlin’s fourth field goal, a 40-yarder with 2:20 left in the third quarter to cap the scoring.
“Obviously, there's a lot of stuff to clean up, a little sloppy on our part,” Lewerke said. “We just got to be able to finish drives once we get down there, stay penalty free and get the ball in the end zone. Other than that we got to keep pushing and work on getting better.”