'Execution is key': Spartans gaining confidence, momentum on offense
East Lansing — It’s been a while since Mark Dantonio looked back at a game searching for answers as to why his defense struggled while it was the offense that carried Michigan State to a victory.
But that’s the position the Spartans coach was in Sunday after Michigan State’s 40-31 win over Indiana on Saturday, a game where the offense gained 442 yards and was a perfect 4-for-4 in the red zone while the defense allowed nearly 300 yards passing and watched as Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix completed 20 straight passes at one point.
“Penix threw a very catchable ball yesterday, most of them were right on the money,” Dantonio said of Indiana’s redshirt freshman. “Amazingly he had 20 straight completions, found that out after the football game, but that's a credit to what they did. And so, you know, not many people have scored 31 points on us as of late.”
No, they sure haven’t. In fact, the last time Michigan State allowed that many points was in a 38-31 win over Utah State in the season opener last year.
The Hoosiers were able to move the ball against one of the best run defenses in the country by hitting quick, short passes and plenty of screen passes.
“For the first three quarters their average distance they threw the ball down the field was 4 yards,” Dantonio said. “A lot of bubbles, lot of jail-break screens, a lot of tailback swings, a lot of sort of stop routes and ways to spread out. The 4 or 5 yards per pass becomes a 6-yard gain or a 7-yard gain, and that's what we saw happen and then they did hit a couple big plays.”
The big plays along with Indiana’s ability to consistently move the ball might have been a problem last season or even early in 2019. In fact, it would have been crippling just two weeks ago. But since Michigan State's loss to Arizona State, the offense has started to build some momentum.
The Spartans (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) scored 31 points and looked efficient in a road win over Northwestern to open Big Ten play a week ago then piled up 442 yards on Saturday as quarterback Brian Lewerke and wide receiver Darrell Stewart did their best to help the offense finally be the reason Michigan State won a game.
“What we needed offensively was we needed to get confidence,” Dantonio said. “Confidence with what was being called and doing what we needed to do and the execution of it. I think we're getting that. I think right now we've got a quarterback that is extremely confident and wide receivers that are confident and we’ve got a running back that is running well and has the ability to crease you and make a big play.”
It’s adding up to some of Michigan State’s most consistent offensive production since the 2017 season. Through five games, the Spartans have gained more than 400 yards three times while the individual performances are standing out.
Lewerke has thrown for at least 300 yards twice and has just one interception against 10 touchdown passes. His 78 yards rushing against Indiana was the third-highest total of his career and he became just the second Michigan State quarterback to throw for more than 6,000 yards and run for more than 1,000 in a career, joining Drew Stanton.
Stewart, meanwhile, is having his best season after pulling in five catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday, the first multi-touchdown game of his career. His 35 catches and 556 yards both lead the Big Ten as Stewart has now caught a pass in 29 straight games, including 11 consecutive with at least three receptions.
Add in the consistent play of redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins, who has touchdowns in three straight games, and the offense is starting to get rolling.
“Execution is always the key,” Dantonio said of the offensive improvement. “I feel like we missed a couple of opportunities, but for the most part we played very well offensively and usually when we score over 30 points we've won football games over the course of time.”
The Spartans are doing it as the offensive line continues to take its lumps.
Already without tackles Cole Chewins and AJ Arcuri as well as guard/tackle Kevin Jarvis, the versatile Blake Bueter went down on Saturday. Dantonio said Bueter’s injury was not long term and hinted that some of the injured players could be getting back soon.
Meanwhile, that led to more time for freshman J.D. Duplain while there’s still a chance fellow freshmen Devontae Dobbs and Nick Samac could see more action as No. 25 Michigan State prepares to hit the road to take on No. 4 Ohio State.
“It's a little bit of a juggling act,” Dantonio said, “but all three of them are No. 2 offensive linemen now and I just think that relative to if a guy gets hurt, you want to have them ready to play. They have to be prepared to play long term.”
While the offense does its best to get healthy, Dantonio said sophomore cornerback Shakur Brown is “close” to returning after missing the last four weeks with an undisclosed injury and said the fact redshirt freshman cornerback Kalon Gervin was playing over fifth-year senior Josh Butler late in the game was a coach’s decision, but insinuated it was based on an injury.
Michigan State at Ohio State
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Columbus, Ohio, Ohio Stadium
Records: Michigan State 4-1, 2-0 Big Ten; Ohio State 5-0, 2-0
Line: Ohio State by 21.5