'It's execution': Spartans won't pin offensive struggles on play-calling

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The boos didn’t start to become noticeable until the third quarter on Friday night.

To that point, Michigan State’s offensive struggles in its season opener against Tulsa were mostly being met with a few shakes of the head, maybe an inappropriate word or two here and there bouncing around the stands at Spartan Stadium.

But when No. 18 Michigan State began its first drive of the third quarter at its 8-yard line after an impressive punt return by Cody White was wiped by a personal foul on Shakur Brown, the crowd had officially grown restless. The Spartans ran three straight running plays to Connor Heyward — the first play didn’t count because of a holding penalty — before Brian Lewerke’s check-down pass to C.J. Hayes on third down fell incomplete, forcing the Spartans to punt from their end zone.

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke (14) celebrates after running the ball for a first down in the second quarter.

The players trotted off the field shaking their heads. The boos were growing, as was the frustration. Everyone had seen this game before. After all, it was nearly a carbon copy of what Michigan State produced in 2018.

“The way we played,” White said, “I would have been booing myself.”

Added Lewerke, “It was probably right for them to do so in a sense. The offense was lacking.”

An offseason that included coaching shuffles — head coach Mark Dantonio opted not to bring any new faces on his staff — and talk of a new offense resulted in more of the same.

The same thing as 2018 when a defense as good as any in the nation was counted on to make up for an offense that failed to find any rhythm. The Spartans’ defense played its part in the 28-7 win over Tulsa, scoring a touchdown, getting a safety and forcing three turnovers.

On the other side, though, it was a familiar script playing out. After the opening drive went 73 yards on nine plays and ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Lewerke to Heyward, the offense was unable to muster much.

Three drives in the second quarter highlighted Michigan State’s offensive problems. Three times the Spartans began in Tulsa territory and three times they ended up with field goals. The drives went like this: four plays for 4 yards, seven plays for 7 yards and four plays for 4 yards.

The first possession was set up by Dominique Long’s blocked punt. From Tulsa’s 24, Michigan State threw two incomplete passes and White gained 4 yards on a run before Matt Coghlin’s first of four field goals. The next possession came after Kenny Willekes recovered a fumble and MSU started at the Tulsa 36. The Spartans managed a first down on Lewerke’s 15-yard scramble, but a drop by White helped lead to another Coghlin field goal.

After Michigan State’s next drive ended on downs inside the Tulsa 10 when Rocky Lombardi was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1, the final four-play possession began at Tulsa’s 30 after an Antjuan Simmons interception. But just 4 yards were gained and Coghlin was called on again.

Instead of having the game put away by halftime, Tulsa went to the locker room feeling like it still had a shot in the second half.

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“It’s execution,” Dantonio said. “People look at the plays, look at somebody running certain plays, well we want to do that, too. … We’ve got to make plays, whether it’s our blocking angles or the running back himself, there’s just a lot of different things going on. Without seeing the film, you really can’t say why something didn’t work or how close it was to working. But I thought we played hard and I thought the tempo was good and we had aggressive play calling.”

“I thought the play-calling was pretty good, but you’ve got to execute.”

That might not make the fans feel any better. Nor would the notion that Michigan State held some things back in the first week. Keeping things simple in the opener is acceptable when you’re simply fine-tuning your offensive attack. For the Spartans, that’s not the case.

Still, some made it sound like there was a lot more in the playbook.

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“I feel like we didn’t unveil everything,” White said. “I feel like we still got more in the tank.”

More might be in the tank, and there’s still time for things to be turned around. Michigan State hosts Western Michigan on Saturday night before Arizona State comes to town on Sept. 14. After that, it’s on to the Big Ten with a trip to Northwestern.

Is there is a sudden turnaround in store like in 2013, when the Spartans offense slogged through four nonconference games before coming to life and rolling to a conference championship? Maybe, but that team was solid along the offensive line and simply needed Connor Cook to emerge at quarterback.

This year’s team is getting overmatched along the offensive line. At least, it did against Tulsa, a team that was 118th against the run in 2018. How much will that change over the next couple of weeks? That’s tougher to gauge, but if there isn’t significant improvement the boos on Friday might not be the last.

“We just gotta stay focused, make sure we’re not jumping offsides, holding, dropping passes, just mental focus,” White said. “Being able to score on that first drive, we had the momentum and the defense played outstanding. And for us just to not be able to do it throughout the game, it’s pretty frustrating.

“But we know it was all on us. We were just holding ourselves back.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau