Michigan State's running game gets on track behind freshman infusion
East Lansing — Trying to see the silver lining in last week’s loss to Illinois was probably difficult this week around Michigan State’s football facilities.
It was the fourth straight loss for the Spartans, who gave up 27 fourth-quarter points and watched a 25-point lead disappear in a fog of turnovers and big plays made, once again, by the opposing team.
However, there really were some good things that happened, primarily in the first quarter-and-a-half when Michigan State built a 28-3 lead. And now, as the Spartans (4-5, 2-4 Big Ten) prepare to head to Ann Arbor on Saturday to take on No. 14 Michigan, they feel like the offense is starting to find some momentum.
“We had opportunities and we moved the football,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
More specifically, the Spartans ran the ball efficiently for the first time since the blowout win over Western Michigan in Week 2. In that game, Michigan State scored 51 points and gained 251 yards on the ground. It was the first start for redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins, who ran for a career-high 192 yards.
After that game, the offense started to grind to halt, never gaining more than 142 rushing yards over the next six games. In three of those games, the Spartans were limited to 67, 30 and 83 rushing yards
Last week, however, things started to come together as Collins gained 170 yards on a career-high 28 carries as Michigan State ran for a season-high 275 yards.
“I think it was the offensive line a little bit and he had good vision and broke through some tackles and ran through some tackles,” Dantonio said. “He's a powerful guy, 225 (pounds), he can run. He's deceptively fast. I think he's faster than he looks on the film sometimes. He's a 4-4, 4-5 guy.”
But Collins was quick to point out the big game was about more than him.
“Everything was just clicking in the first half,” Collins said. “The momentum, blocks were there, holes were there, people were getting open, passes were on point. It’s just everything as whole, just the little stuff.”
Before the Illinois game, Collins hadn’t come close to matching his numbers from the Western Michigan game. He’d been OK, but as the offense struggled to score points, his production faltered. Over the six games between WMU and Illinois, Collins ran for no more than 76 yards in a game, though he did average 5.3 yards a carry in the loss to Ohio State.
Entering last week’s game, though, the Spartans decided to commit to some changes up front as true freshmen Nick Samac and J.D. Duplain made their first career starts. Some of it was forced because of injuries and illness, but the early returns were promising with Samac at center and Duplain at left guard.
Samac and Duplain were joined in the starting lineup by fellow freshmen Tre Mosley and Julian Barnett at wide receiver, a lineup that is sure to get more opportunities this week against Michigan and beyond, especially after the way the offensive line opened holes for Collins and protected quarterback Brian Lewerke.
“They are starting. That would be a pretty good indication they are playing,” Dantonio said of Duplain and Samac. “I thought JD played very, very well. I thought Nick Samac played very, very well. Both those guys are true freshmen, and we also started two freshman wide receivers. They had a couple drops or bobbles, but they played pretty well, as well.
"To get better, you've got to play, but they are talented guys. So we started four freshmen this past week out of necessity, but I do think that the two offensive linemen are good players and going to continue to play.”
Having continued success against Michigan might be a tougher task. The Wolverines have been all over the map defending the run. They limited Iowa to just 1 yard four games ago, but allowed Wisconsin to gain 359 yards a week after Army ran for 200.
If the young Michigan State offensive line continues to progress, the Spartans are hoping to come close to matching last week’s production.
“It was a good job by the offensive line,” Collins said. “They did a pretty good job, especially my young guys stepping up in their first start this year and having some other guys back from injury. So I’m proud of my offensive lineman, my tight ends, my receivers. Everybody was blocking as a whole and without them I can’t do anything.”