Michigan State, Michigan ground games running in opposite directions as showdown nears

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Through one game, this much is certain about Mel Tucker: He is not a magician.

There will be no rabbit being pulled from a hat, no making things disappear and no strange words creating a puff of smoke followed by oohs and aahs.

Nope. Turning around Michigan State football – namely the Spartans’ offensive production – is a much bigger job. There will be no tricks, no smoke and mirrors.

Michigan State running back Connor Heyward is hit hard by Rutgers defensive back Brendon White in the first quarter.

And if the season-opening loss to Rutgers is any indication, there’s still a long way to go before the Spartans come close to putting up the points and moving the ball the way they did at the high point of the Mark Dantonio era – a stretch that saw the offense put up program-record numbers while piling up wins, capturing Big Ten championships and, at one point, reaching the College Football Playoff.

Michigan State scored some points against the Scarlet Knights – 27, to be exact, a number that is better than the Spartans averaged in any of their previous four seasons. And quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw for 319 yards and three touchdowns.

However, Michigan State ran the ball 39 times for 50 yards for an average of 1.3 yards a carry.

That’s right – 1.3 yards. Nine of Michigan State’s 39 carries lost yardage.

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“Offensively, our philosophy is we want to be able to run the ball on our terms, and we weren't able to do that,” Tucker said after the game. “So that makes it tough because when you are somewhat one-dimensional, it is hard to be successful.”

The Spartans weren’t able to run the ball on any terms against Rutgers.

Elijah Collins, the leading returning rusher in the Big Ten, carried the ball nine times for 3 yards. In fact, Collins didn’t even start. Michigan State, instead, opted to go with junior Connor Heyward, last year’s starter to begin the season before he decided after four games to enter the transfer portal. Or course, Heyward chose to stay at MSU after Tucker was hired and does bring experience and versatility, but he’s not the guy many expected to get the bulk of the work this season. He ran seven times for 18 yards.

Sophomore Anthony Williams, who provided some spark last season, did not play and sophomore Brandon Wright got stuffed for a loss of 2 on his only carry. The brightest spot in the backfield was freshman Jordon Simmons. He got the ball 14 times and gained 43 yards with a long of 14 yards.

“We’ve got to run the ball better, and we need to be able run a ball on our terms,” Tucker said Tuesday, repeating his mantra. “Having balance on offense and not being one-dimensional is critically important. I believe with a combination of improvement up front on some technique and fundamentals and some communication things, as well as just hitting the hole with the velocity and explosiveness, I believe that we can do a better job running a football.”

Like it always is in football, the breakdown of any play is rarely because of one issue. In other words, the failure to run is not pinned on the backs. Sure, there were some missed holes and a couple cutbacks weren’t taken advantage of, but the offensive line play wasn’t anywhere close to acceptable.

The Spartans struggled to handle Rutgers’ defensive alignment up front and went from failing to move defenders one play to not blocking anyone the next. On other plays, the MSU offensive lineman simply got pushed back into the backfield.

Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet carries for a touchdown against Minnesota in the first half.

It’s unclear if Michigan State started its best five offensive linemen. AJ Arcuri was at left tackle, Blake Bueter at left guard, Matt Allen at center, Matt Carrick at right guard and Kevin Jarvis at right tackle. Sophomore J.D. Duplain saw a few series at left guard and sophomore Nick Samac had one series at center, while Luke Campbell, Devontae Dobbs and Mustafa Khaleefah were not dressed.

Tucker wasn’t using injuries or illness – he didn’t offer clarity on who was and was not available to play – and instead focused on improving the running attack as a whole.

“There was some room there that we were not able to get to,” Tucker said. “At times you can see when we were able to hit the hole with some velocity when there were some creases there and we were able to get some shots.”

While we might see some shuffling on the line, expect Tucker and his offensive staff to continue to tinker with the running backs to find the best combination.

“We played multiple backs and we’re going to continue to do that,” Tucker said. “I thought Jordan Simmons was someone who impressed me in the game as a true freshman coming in, running hard and really taking advantage of some of the creases that our line created, but certainly we've got a lot of work to do.”

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It wasn’t all bad offensively in the 38-27 loss to Rutgers. Of course, the same offense torpedoed its chances to win the game by fumbling the ball five times, throwing two interceptions and failing to convert on fourth down twice.

“If we can take away the turnovers it's a completely different game,” Lombardi said this week as Michigan State prepares to take on Michigan on Saturday. “I don’t think that game represents at all what we can do offensively.”

How much of it changes this week against Michigan is the question. The Wolverines gave up 140 yards on 26 carries to Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim, but he’s a high-level back, something Michigan State has yet to prove it has.

And on the flip side, Michigan dominated on the ground in its win over Minnesota. The Wolverines gained 256 yards on 31 carries while Zach Charbonnet had a 70-yard run and Hassan Haskins ripped off a 66-yarder.

In a series where eight of the last 10 winners have won the rushing battle, the clear advantage goes to Michigan. The Spartans proved they can move the ball, but can they eliminate the mistakes? Can they scratch out some sort of running attack?

“We’ve got a young football team that’s bought in, that’s eager, that's motivated and wants to do well,” Tucker said. “We’ve done some good things and this is a week to get some things cleaned up and improve. I believe that you typically make your most improvement from game one to game two. And so, that's where the where our focus is.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Run to win

Only twice in the last 10 years (2015, 2016) has the winning team in the Michigan vs. Michigan State game not rushed for more yards.

2019: UM won, 44-10 (MSU 54 yards rushing, UM 83)

2018: UM, 21-7 (MSU 15, UM 183)

2017: MSU 14-10 (MSU 128, UM 102)    

2016: UM, 32-23 (MSU 217, UM 192)

2015: MSU, 27-23 (MSU 58, UM 62)

2014: MSU, 35-11 (MSU 219, UM 61)

2013: MSU, 29-6 (MSU 142, UM minus-48)

2012: UM, 12-10 (MSU 112, UM 163)

2011: MSU, 28-14 (MSU 213, UM 82)

2010: MSU, 34-17 (MSU 249, UM 162)