Michigan State sees offensive line's improvement finally pay dividends

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

You don’t have to convince Chris Kapilovic. He can see the numbers, too.

Michigan State’s offensive line coach and run-game coordinator has had his work cut out for him this season as the Spartans have been one of the worst rushing offenses in the nation. Entering last week’s matchup with then No. 8 Northwestern, Michigan State had managed to run for more than 60 yards in a game just once and was averaging just more than 2 yards a carry.

Connor Heyward, right, ran for 96 of Michigan State's 195 rushing yards in Saturday's vicory over Northwestern.

Still, Kapilovic and head coach Mel Tucker insisted there was more there, that the Spartans were ever-so close to putting it all together. And as they prepared to take on Maryland two weeks ago, they were sure the running game was about to click.

“If you just look at the stats, it's pretty ugly,” Kapilovic said. “But when you're watching the games and you're really focusing on the inside, you saw some improvement. And really, the week of preparation for Maryland was the best week of practice we had had all year. It was one of the few times that all five (offensive linemen) were out there at the same time practicing all week.

“I was excited to play that game because I felt like we were making really good progress. And then, obviously, that gets shut down.”

COVID-19 struck the Terrapins and wiped out their meeting with the Spartans, forcing Kapilovic and his group to shift its focus to Northwestern, one of the top defenses in the country.

“I wanted to see if our guys could respond and have another good week, which they did,” Kapilovic said.

Did they ever. Michigan State ran for 195 yards on 47 attempts for an average of 4.1 yards a carry. It helped keep the Wildcats defense on its heels and allowed the Spartans to pull off the 29-20 upset.

Junior running back Connor Heyward led the way with 96 yards on 24 carries while junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi chipped in, picking up 65 yards on 10 attempts.

“Starting with the guys up front, they played extremely hard,” Kapilovic said. “They’re starting to finally play with some of the intensity and pad level and technique that you’re looking for. I think our running backs ran harder. They were specific about hitting the holes. Obviously, when you throw in Lombardi and with him making some good checks, and then also taking the ball and running it when it became available puts a lot of stress on defenses.

“So I just think it was the whole group, and don’t leave out the receivers. They blocked really well, they were physical on the perimeter, they got to the safeties and that’s huge to have success in the run game, especially against a team like Northwestern where 90% of the time everybody on the defense is 8 yards from the ball. I just felt like it was a full offensive effort and it started up front with those guys and our backs running hard.”

The play of the offensive line has been the focus for most of the season. Early on, it was bad. But as the lineup has shuffled a bit, the progress has started to show and a five-man unit is starting to form.

The starting group has remained intact for three straight games and there hasn’t been much rotating. Senior AJ Arcuri has been the mainstay at left tackle with junior Kevin Jarvis at right tackle. Junior Matt Carrick has been the same at right guard while center and left guard have shifted. Sophomore Nick Samac took aver for senior Matt Allen after the opener when Allen got hurt, and sophomore J.D. Duplain has started the last three games at left guard over junior Blake Bueter.

“Our lineup has changed a little bit through the season and then we've had guys missing some practice time that made it a little bit difficult, but we need to build continuity,” Kapilovic said. “A lot of these guys have been injured and up and down throughout their career. So, just trying to get them to be consistent, practice every day and play every week is going to start to see us pay dividends there.”

That doesn’t mean those five players are set in stone. Kapilovic wants to continue to see players pushed. Bueter played a few series for Duplain against Northwestern, and other young players are starting to push. Redshirt freshman tackle Spencer Brown is close to seeing the field and sophomore guard James Ohonba has played well in short stints.

“Continuity is critical, but you do want to get to a point where you have some competition and you could play a few other guys,” Kapilovic said. “That’s just going to push the guy that’s starting, it's going to motivate the guy that's the backup to practice hard so he knows he can get out there and get some reps. So, we’re going to get there, but it's not quite there yet.”

Continuing the progress this week will be difficult. Ohio State enters the game with the 11th-best rushing defense in the nation, allowing 98.5 yards a game.

But the Spartans got it done against one good defense and they believe they’re on track to get it done against another. If they do, it will be a huge step for the offense as a whole.

“There’s still a lot of room for improvement there,” Tucker said. “But I feel like we're moving in the right direction in terms of being able to run the ball and then also stopping the run. You can't beat good teams and you can't be consistent in your performance if you can't control the line of scrimmage.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau