Michigan State takeaways: Brian Lewerke at his best at just the right time
Five takeaways from Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News following Michigan State's 40-31 victory over Indiana on Saturday.
That's what they're talking about
When folks said before the season began they’d like to see the Brian Lewerke from 2017, the way the fifth-year senior played in Saturday’s win over Indiana was exactly what they were talking about. Lewerke missed a few throws and got dinged with a few drops, finishing 18-for-36. But even with the miscues, he threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns while leading the Spartans in rushing with 78 yards on 12 carries. The final drive of the game was the perfect example of how well Lewerke played as he gave Darrell Stewart a chance to make a play with a 44-yard strike on first down, then put Michigan State in position to win the game with a 30-yard run down to the Indiana 1.
While Lewerke’s completion percentage is lacking, he’s still third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game at 265 yards, but more importantly to the Spartans, he’s making plays when it matters most. At least, he has for the past two weeks, a positive sign after some early inconsistencies. The tough part of the schedule is coming up now, and if Michigan State has any shot of getting through it, the play of Lewerke will be critical.
More rushing yards needed
As effective as Lewerke has been the last couple of weeks, the Spartans need to start getting more out of their rushing attack, specifically from the tailback position. Take away the 78 yards Lewerke gained and the Spartans managed just 67 rushing yards for a total of 142. Entering the game, only the Western Michigan win stood out when the Spartans gained 251 yards on the ground. In the other three games, Michigan State did not do better than 113 rushing yards.
Injuries along the offensive line have certainly made it tougher for the Spartans to build any momentum in the running attack, but redshirt freshman Elijah Collins has done his best to keep the ground game from getting stuffed. He exploded for 192 yards in the win over Western Michigan, but the numbers haven’t quite gotten to that point since. It hasn’t been bad as Collins has found the end zone three times and shown a knack for getting tough yards, but there’s no doubt Michigan State will need to be more effective overall running the ball if it expects to make a push in the Big Ten over the next few weeks.
Clean up the drops
The offense has started to come together the last couple of weeks, but in addition to finding a consistent running game, the Spartans have had some problems with dropped passes. It’s not an official statistic, but it seems there are at least a few each game, and that was certainly the case in the win over Indiana. Some are clear drops while others are tougher plays to make that you simply expect guys to make more often than not. An example was Darrell Stewart’s 44-yard grab on the final drive. It was a straight 50-50 ball and Stewart beat the defender for the ball. On the flip side, Cody White had a ball earlier in the game near the sideline that wasn’t thrown perfectly but was a ball he should have caught.
With the margin for error so slim over the next couple of weeks with trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Spartans will need to make the simple plays along with some of the tough catches. Clean up the drops and Michigan State’s offense becomes far more effective.
It turns out the defense isn’t perfect after all, just a week after coach Mark Dantonio said the goal for the defense is to play perfect. On most weeks, the Spartans come pretty close to perfect, stuffing the run on a regular basis while ranking among the best in the country in scoring defense and total defense. In Saturday’s win, however, the Spartans found themselves on their heels for much of the game as Indiana quarterback Michael Penix completed 20 straight passes at one point. The bubble screens frustrated Michigan State and had the defensive backs frustrated.
True to form, though, the Spartans had critical back-to-back three-and-outs in the fourth quarter to put the offense in position to rally from behind and when it needed to get a couple stops, it did. There’s hardly panic taking over Michigan State’s defense, but the performance against Indiana at least reminded them you don’t just show up and things will work out while also illustrating a few areas where there is still room for improvement.
Escaping the 'trap'
The matchup with Indiana was the classic “trap” game and it almost caught the Spartans. They had just come off a convincing road win over Northwestern and were heavy favorites at home against the Hoosiers with back-to-back road games the next two weeks against Ohio State and Wisconsin, the leaders in each division. By early in the fourth quarter, Michigan State found itself trailing Indiana and needed two big fourth-quarter drives to pull out the victory.
As Dantonio pointed out after the game, he’s more worried about results at this point with the critical part of the schedule underway. So while it might have gotten dicey in the second half, the Spartans managed to get the win and avoid a loss that could have ended any chance in the division race before it even began.