Matt Charboneau and John Niyo break down Michigan State's season-opening win over Tulsa. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Five takeaways from Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News following Michigan State's 28-7 victory over Tulsa on Friday night.
Where's the push?
The offensive line was missing fifth-year senior Cole Chewins at left tackle, but that’s not enough to explain how the unit struggled in the season-opener against Tulsa. The Spartans rarely controlled the line of scrimmage last season and were expected to show at least some improvement in 2019. However, the opener against a Tulsa provided only more questions. Michigan State managed only 108 yards rushing on 40 carries for a paltry 2.7-yard average while quarterback Brian Lewerke was under pressure for most of the game. Cohesion is clearly still lacking as Chewins’ replacement, junior AJ Arcuri, did not play because of an injury, which led to right guard Kevin Jarvis playing left tackle for the first time. He had his share of problems as the rest of the line felt the effect with seven players rotating into the game. Yes, it was just the first game, but failing to get any sort of push against a Tulsa team that has finished in the bottom half of the American Athletic Conference each of the past two seasons is not a good sign for Michigan State’s offense.
While the play up front from the offensive line isn’t where it needs to be, the Spartans aren’t getting a ton of help from their running backs. Junior Connor Heyward averaged 2.9 yards a carry as he gained 43 yards on 15 carries while sophomore La’Darius Jefferson picked up just 8 yards on seven attempts, an average of just 1.1 yards a carry. “It's very cohesive,” coach Mark Dantonio said of the running game. “The tight ends are involved, the running backs are involved and a couple of times I felt that they could have cut back, you know, if they had run things the way they were supposed to.” The coach isn’t letting his backs off the hook and it will be interesting to see where the Spartans go from here. Heyward is a versatile player who has value on this offense, but perhaps redshirt freshman Elijah Collins gets more carries in the next few weeks. The former UD-Jesuit star showed a bit of burst that Heyward and Jefferson did not, breaking through for a 15-yard touchdown run that was called back for holding. With MSU looking for any sort of spark, perhaps Collins can provide one.
Michigan State's players react to the 28-7 win over Tulsa to open the 2019 season. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
When an offense is struggling to move the ball, it’s often easy to look at the quarterback and assign plenty of the blame to that player. However, to do so in the case of Brian Lewerke would be unfair. The fifth-year senior was hardly perfect on Friday, but he was much sharper than he was last season when battling a shoulder injury. Lewerke was 21-for-37 for 192 yards with a touchdown pass to Heyward, but he was hampered by a handful of dropped passes and an offensive line that had him on the run. The frustration mounted for Lewerke as the game progressed, but he looked much more comfortable, willing to get out of the pocket and make plays with his feet when the protection broke down. It’s something he might have to continue to do if the play up front doesn’t improve, but Lewerke at least looked much more like the player he was in 2017 when he gained more than 3,300 total yards.
As expected, Michigan State was outstanding on defense. In fact, dominant might be the right word as the Spartans had 13 tackles for loss, including six sacks, forced three turnovers and scored a defensive touchdown. But those weren’t the most eye-opening numbers. Tulsa finished the game with minus-73 yards rushing, a Michigan State school record. Some of it was helped by 40 yards lost on two bad snaps by the Golden Hurricane, but running backs Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor combined for minus-1 yard on 13 carries, a true indicator of how the Hurricane had nowhere to run. Tulsa, in reality, couldn’t move the ball the entire game. It’s only scoring drive came late in the first half and was kept alive by a roughing the passer penalty on Kenny Willekes and cashed in on two deep balls against cornerback Josh Butler. Outside of that, the Hurricane were stuck and managed only 80 total yards. It’s the type of game we’ve come to expect from the Spartans defense and might be needed on a weekly basis if Michigan State expects to contend in the Big Ten East.
The usual suspects were exactly as advertised on Michigan State’s defense. Willekes had 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and a touchdown while linebacker Joe Bachie had six tackles. Cornerback Josiah Scott had four tackles and broke up a pass and tackle Raequan Williams forced a fumble and had a half-sack. But junior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk had a breakout game, getting after the quarterback on a consistent basis while recording three tackles for loss, including one sack. The Spartans’ defense focused on two things in the offseason – getting after the quarterback and creating turnovers. They did both against Tulsa, and if Panasiuk remains healthy and preforms consistently, there might not be many defensive front sevens better than Michigan State’s.