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Michigan State takeaways: Offensive slide has been four years in making

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Five takeaways from The Detroit News' Matt Charboneau after Michigan State's 38-0 loss to Wisconsin Saturday.

Festering issue

The offense has been the problem at Michigan State this season. In fact, it’s been the problem ever since the Spartans appeared in the College Football Playoff in 2015. Since then, the offensive production has slowly dwindled to the point last season where the Spartans ranked 116th in the nation in scoring, an alarming position for a team that had become accustomed to contending for championships. Just past the halfway point of 2019, it’s clear not much has changed, even with coaches assuming new duties. The last two weeks have shown that, a point hammered home in Saturday’s shutout loss at Wisconsin. Michigan State managed 149 total yards, but 37 of those yards came on a final meaningless drive populated by backups on both sides of the ball.

Michigan State has been held without a touchdown for six straight quarters against the best the Big Ten has to offer. Sure, the points were coming against the likes of Northwestern and Indiana, but beating up on the middle of the conference is not the expectation. Or, at least, it didn’t used to be. Judging by the offense’s performance the last two weeks, expecting to play with the big boys might be too much to ask.

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke was 7-of-16 for 53 yards before being replaced by Rocky Lombardi in Saturday's 38-0 loss to Wisconsin.

Lewerke not alone

It’s often easy to dump on the quarterback when an offense isn’t playing well. For the first six games, that would have been unfair to fifth-year senior Brian Lewerke, who entered Saturday’s game at Wisconsin having thrown 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions and had been plagued by a nation-high 23 dropped passes from his wide receivers. However, Lewerke can’t dodge blame this time as he was 7-for-16 for 53 yards and one interception against the Badgers. His receivers were unable to make a few tough catches early but for the most part, Lewerke was not on target. Add in getting plenty of pressure thanks the fact the Spartans couldn’t run the ball and the result was predictable.

Lewerke can’t turn this offense around on his own, even if the drops were cut in half. However, he didn’t play on Saturday like a veteran quarterback capable of pulling a team along with him against one of the best defenses in the nation. Perhaps it’s foolish to expect much more. Five years into his career, Lewerke probably is what he is.

Digital demise

With the offense continuing to be unable to find any ability to consistently move the ball, it’s starting to produce some awful numbers. The 149 total yards was the worst offensive output since the Spartans gained just 94 yards in last season’s loss to Michigan while their seven first downs was the second time under coach Mark Dantonio that they failed to earn at least 10 first downs in a game. The only other time they failed to get 10 first downs was in Dantonio’s first season of 2007 when they picked up nine against Ohio State. The ugliness didn’t stop there as Michigan State had seven three-and-outs and converted just 2 of 14 third downs as nine of 11 drives ended in punts. The other two? Interceptions.

The possession time helps explain the overall problem for the Spartans. Wisconsin held the ball for 39:10 while Michigan State had it for just 20:50. In the first half alone, the Badgers had the ball for more than 23 minutes. It’s a double-edged sword — the offense can’t sustain drives and the defense can’t get off the field.

Getting gashed

This is usually where we spend plenty of time talking about the offense’s deficiencies, however, the defense is no longer getting off the hook after allowing 72 points in the last two games. That number is startling enough, but the Spartans have long been known as a team that stops the run, leading the nation in 2018 in rushing defense. Over the last two weeks, though, they’ve been getting run over by some of the best rushing attacks in the nation. Ohio State gained 323 yards two weeks ago while Wisconsin churned out 222 yards on Saturday. The Spartans can pat themselves on the back for holding Jonathan Taylor to only 80 yards — just the sixth time in 33 career games he failed to gain 100 yards in a game — but that would be a bit misguided considering the Badgers scored on six of their first eight drives.

Michigan State has a veteran group on defense, a front seven that has been among the best in the nation for the past three seasons. Maybe the losing is getting to them, but it’s clear that in 2019, the Michigan State defense doesn’t have quite the nastiness it’s had in the past.

Time for reflection

Where Michigan State goes from here is the overriding question. For the second straight week, heads were hanging in the second half as the Spartans had no answers on how to stop the ball or how to sustain a drive. The biggest burst of energy came in between the third and fourth quarters when the home crowd at Camp Randall Stadium bounced joyously as “Jump Around” played loudly, a tradition at Wisconsin. With the entire stadium jumping, a handful of Spartans on the sideline joined in. Why not? There wasn’t much else to feel good about.

The Spartans now head to a bye week. It will undoubtedly be a week of soul-searching as the Spartans try to salvage something positive out of this season. With No. 10 Penn State visiting Spartan Stadium in two weeks, it will take quite the turnaround. Based on the body language on Saturday night, that turnaround seems unlikely.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau