MSU mailbag: Quietly, Brian Lewerke off to strong start, but Joe Bachie's making noise
It’s that time of the week again when we answer all your Michigan State questions, and with basketball practice officially underway, we’ll surely start branching off in two different directions.
Football is still on the minds of most this week as we dissect quarterback Brian Lewerke’s performance so far this season, wonder about the stability of the offensive line and marvel at linebacker Joe Bachie’s performance. We also sneak in a couple of basketball questions.
► Question. (Brian) Lewerke has been struggling with the shorter, easier throws like screens and has been more accurate with longer, tougher passes. Any thoughts as to why? — @patrickragains
► Answer. It’s funny because I’m certain I saw a question in the past couple of weeks that lamented the fact Lewerke was not at all accurate on deep passes. Without specific numbers in front of me breaking down his completion percentages based on where he’s throwing the ball, let’s look at the fact Lewerke simply isn’t a terribly accurate passer. He entered the season completing 56.7 percent of his career passes and has actually taken a jump this season, completing 62.3 percent through four games. While it’s an improvement for Lewerke, he’s still in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. There were some clear missed throws last week at Northwestern — a screen pass to Connor Heyward’s feet in the first half comes to mind — but there’s been a fair share of drops, too. I guess what I’m getting at is with Lewerke now in his fourth season playing, the numbers tell the story — this is about as accurate as he’s gonna be.
► Q. Brian Lewerke is quietly having a good year. What do you expect from him as the schedule gets tougher? — @Adam_Burke_
►A. See, some love for Lewerke. I’d have to agree with you he is quietly having a good year. I buy the term “quietly” because he’s not making eye-opening plays, he’s simply making the plays he needs to make. In other words, he’s not making the mistakes he did last season. Through four games, Lewerke is averaging 256.3 yards a game — good for third in the Big Ten — is completing better than 62 percent of his passes and has thrown for seven touchdowns and just one interception. At this point last season he’d already thrown seven interceptions, so things clearly have turned around. Where does it go from here? I’m not sure if it gets noticeably better, but I certainly don’t expect a drop-off. Maybe a younger quarterback would struggle with the tougher teams that are still to come, but five years in and three seasons as a starter means Lewerke won’t be overwhelmed. At least, he shouldn’t be.
►Q. What a game by Joe Bachie on Saturday! He has been outstanding for three seasons. Where do you think he ranks on the all-time linebackers list at Michigan State? — @daveholz
► A. Yes, Dave, it was a pretty impressive performance. I remember even early in the game sitting in the press box and thinking, "Man, Bachie is everywhere today." Trying to figure out where he ranks in program history is a little more difficult than seeing how important he is to this team. The overall number of tackles — 253 after Saturday’s game — still wouldn’t rank Bachie among the top 20 in program history. He’s clearly not at the level of the likes of Percy Snow, Greg Jones or Chuck Bullough. Just in the Mark Dantonio era, I think you have to put Jones first with Max Bullough probably next. Even Eric Gordon, who played with Jones and was often overlooked, finished his career with 331 tackles, which ranks 12th all-time. I’d say by the time Bachie is done he’ll be roughly top 15 in career tackles and would have to rank among the best four or five linebackers to play for Dantonio.
►Q. Is Indiana a trap game? Which offense will show up? — @DeplorablesZero
►A. I suppose you could qualify Indiana as a trap game, considering what comes next for Michigan State. The Spartans are the clear favorite at home and not many people are thinking about an upset. The key for Michigan State will be to buy in to all the one-game-at-a-time business because a loss heading into the next three games could be a killer. After Saturday against Indiana, Michigan State travels to Ohio State and Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks, has a bye, then hosts Penn State. That’s no picnic and saddling yourself with an extra loss won’t help. As for which offense, your guess is as good as mine. The talk this week has been about consistency, but that was the talk after the Western Michigan game. If the offensive line continues to make steps, I’d say there’s a better chance the Spartans avoid an offensive flop in this one.
►Q. How many available offensive linemen beyond the five starters do you think the coaches have confidence in? — @DavidJa88692244
►A. Not many, clearly. When it was still a game on Saturday at Northwestern, the only non-starter to see action was Blake Bueter. That’s not a real big shift, considering Kevin Jarvis is out and MSU was really only playing seven guys before his injury anyway. We’ll see if freshmen Devontae Dobbs, J.D. Duplain and Nick Samac ultimately work their way into that mix, but for now, they’re firmly in the getting-their-feet-wet territory.
►Q. What are they doing to help the tackles? Northwestern was getting pressure. — @bhiggins42
►A. That was probably the most pressure Lewerke has been under all season. While the offensive line has had its issues, they have done a decent job in protection. Some of the issues last week were simply about Northwestern having talented ends while some of it is the constant shifting that has Tyler Higby back out at left tackle. The lineup doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon, so if pressure continues to be an issue, expect more quick reads for Lewerke while keeping an extra tight end in to help out the tackles will likely increase. Also, it could limit snaps for Elijah Collins, considering the Spartans feel more comfortable with Connor Heyward’s ability in pass protection, meaning he’d likely see a little more time than he’s been getting the past two games.
►Q. I wonder if our offensive struggles have more to do with coaching or the inability to recruit top athletes on that side of the ball. How much of our recent recruiting struggles is due to the Blackwell fallout? — @SpartyNColumbus
►A. I know the coaches took a lot of heat the past couple of years, but in my opinion it’s more about recruiting and less about the ability to coach a player. Look, it’s ultimately all on the coaches because they’re the ones doing the recruiting, but it’s not like you just go out and pick five starters without ever missing on a guy. Only a couple of programs in the country operate like that. However, I do feel like the talent level has dropped a bit, but I’m not sure how much of it has to do with Blackwell. Some of it does, I’m sure, but the 3-9 mark in 2016 didn’t help, and the coaching shuffle likely has some recruits taking the wait-and-see approach.
► Q. What are the odds (Foster) Loyer transfers after this year? — @CamdenDC
► A. Man, that’s tough to say. I know the Spartans have point guard Jalen Terry coming in next season and Rocket Watts, who likely will play some point this year, and likely will be back next season, as well. A lot depends on how this year goes and, quite frankly, what Loyer wants to do. He might be fine with being a guy who gets spot minutes at an elite program as opposed to a starter at a mid-major.
►Q. What do you make of (Tom) Izzo calling (Joey) Hauser’s waiver chances a long shot? Admitting it’s a long shot seems to make that decision all that much easier for the NCAA. — @ryanjstolz
► A. Meaning the NCAA was up in the air on its choice but once they saw Izzo’s comments it made it easy for them? I can’t imagine that makes any difference at all. I think Izzo’s comments were simply based on the reality of the waiver petition, nothing more or less.