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Mark Dantonio: Better effort will help fix Michigan State's sputtering offense

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio used his weekly news conference to send a message to his team Tuesday.

One game into the season following another where a dominant defense somewhat wasted by a sputtering offense, there was more of the same in Friday’s opener, a season-opening 28-7 win against Tulsa.

While Spartan Stadium rained boos on the offense and fans on social media spent the weekend questioning whether shifts in coaching responsibilities was enough, Dantonio said more effort could remedy much of what still ails the offense.

“I can say this, football is a game of effort, toughness and knowing what to do,” Dantonio said. “Half of our team figured that out, half of it didn't. We will make sure that other half gets it figured out this week.

“That's my message to our football team.”

More: Western Michigan prepared to ‘earn every yard’ against tough MSU defense

The No. 19 Spartans (1-0) head into Saturday with another chance for the offense to show progress against Western Michigan (1-0) under the lights in East Lansing.

The Spartans had one of the nation’s best defenses last season but finished 7-6 mostly because of the offense’s inability to put up points.

Against the Golden Hurricane, quarterback Brian Lewerke and the Spartans scored just one offensive touchdown and gained 108 yards on 40 rushing attempts. Michigan State finished with 303 yards of total offense while the defense allowed just 80 yards, including minus-73 yards on the ground, a school record for MSU’s defense.

Michigan State running back Connor Heyward rushed for 43 yards on 15 carries in last week's win over Tulsa.

But the Spartans had to settle for four Matt Coghlin field goals and did not score an offensive touchdown after their first possession of the game.

“It was disappointing, because I thought we had a great fall camp, played very well in the scrimmages and you know, lights came on and we got to go and we know that,” said Brad Salem, moved from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator this offseason. “So, we obviously got to be much more productive this week and growth has to occur every week in the game of football and in a season.

“The players know what the last eight months have been. And so I mean you gotta tune into the play and tune in to the moment right now and that's our job to do it right.”

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

Dantonio, who will tie Duffy Daugherty for MSU’s all-time coaching wins with a victory against the Broncos, was more blunt.

“I was disappointed in the effort when I see guys running routes that are not at full speed,” Dantonio said. “I see guys blocking at the point of attack, throwing a shoulder, not addressing a defender. Can't happen. We've predicated ourselves on being tough here any way you cut it.

“That message is going to get sent, whether it's public or not. I'm sure nobody appreciates us running the ball for 67 yards (by running backs), especially the guy in charge. We'll fix that.”

Meanwhile, more accolades poured in for the defense, as defensive end Kenny Willekes was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after scoring his first career touchdown, adding 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks.

While it’s his job to disrupt the opponents, as a captain, he has to make sure the outside noise doesn’t divide the locker room along the line of scrimmage.

“I just try to keep the locker room together,” Willekes said. “What happens on the field, stays on the field. We’re a team, we’re a brotherhood, so just not bring that in the locker room and not bring any animosity between players and groups.”

Added linebacker Joe Bachie: “Defensively, we came out strong. Offensively, we’ve got some growing to do. We’re growing together and we’re going to become very good by the end of the year.”

If they can’t get it together, any finger pointing will ultimately fall on the man at Tuesday’s podium, who is about to add another historic notch to his coaching career.

“What I would say is people see the product, they don't understand the process,” Dantonio said of the critics. “Running backs have to break tackles at times. They have to be able to run through the smoke when there is something. Have to be able to block at the point of attack.

“Football is a game of repetition, like I keep saying. You're not going to just say, 'Hey, let's run that play, nobody else has ever run that play before.' I don't think that exists in this sport.

“If you believe that, people are a little bit naive. As I said earlier, this is about hard work and execution in terms of you got to — I'm holding our coaches accountable as well in this. It's about play selection and play call. We need to do a better job in that as well. I'm not shying away from that responsibility.

“But at the end of the day, there's so many ways to skin a cat. At the end of the day, you better skin the cat. There's another good quote for you. You write that down.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.