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Smashmouth Spartans

It’s hard to believe that at the midway point of the season, Michigan State was coming off a loss to Northwestern where it ran for only 51 yards. It’s hard to believe because since that point the Spartans are averaging 229.2 yards a game on the ground and have rushed for more than 200 yards in four of those five games. In the 17-16 loss to Ohio State on Saturday, the Spartans ran for 207 yards against the No. 11 rushing defense in the nation as sophomore LJ Scott rumbled for a career-best 160 yards.

It’s been slow in coming as the offensive line has taken time to come together, but the emergence of young players like tackle Cole Chewins and guard Tyler Higby (he missed Saturday’s game with an ankle injury), along with the steady play of upperclassmen like Kodi Kieler, Benny McGowan and Brian Allen, has shown the Spartans won’t be abandoning their smashmouth style anytime soon.

Great Scott again

As for Scott, it also wasn’t long ago some were wondering if he would be that No. 1 back so many expected him to be this season. He started out as the top guy in the backfield, but by the fifth game of the season junior Gerald Holmes had taken over as Scott struggled, a couple fumbles in key moments shaking his confidence.

However, Scott has been as much a spark to the running game over the last few weeks as the offensive line as he’s gained more than 100 yards in four of five games while scoring five touchdowns in that stretch. Holmes was limited to two carries against Ohio State and sophomore Madre London spends most of his time on the sidelines as Scott is beginning to look like a player who could be primed for a huge season in 2017.

Return of the rush

Believe it or not, there is still a pass rush for the Michigan State defense. After going three games without a sack and entering Saturday’s matchup with just seven sacks on the season, the Spartans got three in the first half alone against the Buckeyes. Junior end Demetrius Cooper had one on his own while junior linebacker Chris Frey and Shane Jones combined on another. The third was credited to sophomore end Robert Bowers and freshman tackle Mike Panasiuk.

It was a long time coming, but pressure was there against the Buckeyes as the youth up front began to show progress. Redshirt freshman tackle Raequan Williams was credited with three quarterback hurries and freshman end Auston Robertson had a forced fumble. Even walk-on end Dillon Alexander had a fumble recovery and a tackle for loss as the defensive line asserted itself for the first time in weeks.

Quarterback woes

For all the positives, it was still a loss, and the reasons are ones that have been talked about almost weekly. The biggest is the lack of consistent execution on offense, and much of that was in the pass game against the Buckeyes. It’s a fact that the weather was difficult as Ohio State threw for only 86 yards, but the Spartans continue to lack production from the quarterback position.

Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor and junior Damion Terry split time, but neither was especially effective as O’Connor was 6-for-16 and threw two interceptions and Terry was 2-for-5. It’s not something that is going to change with just one game left in the regular season. But it does make clear what the No. 1 storyline will be heading into the spring as Terry is set to return for a quarterback battle that will include redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke and freshman Messiah deWeaver.

Drive killers

Michigan State has been hampered all season by penalties and it was again in the loss to Ohio State. It wasn’t that the Spartans had a ton of them – they were flagged six times – it was the fact they once again proved critical in stalling what looked to be promising drives.

The biggest came in the fourth quarter after the Spartans had just picked up a first down on a fake punt, linebacker Chris Frey running the ball all the way to the Ohio State 37 early in the fourth quarter. On first down, however, Michigan State was hit with a holding call, pushing them back to first-and-20 from the 47. Two plays later, Terry was sacked and the Spartans punted. Those sorts of penalties have crippled Michigan State all season and it was no different on Saturday.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter @mattcharboneau

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