East Lansing — As Michigan State prepared to kick things off on Saturday against Bowling Green, it was the third straight season where talent and depth at running back were hardly a concern.
The only question that has persisted has been how can the Spartans divide carries amongst three talented backs who have all started at some point in their careers? The Michigan State coaches, head coach Mark Dantonio and co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner especially, have said repeatedly that making it work with two is easier. Working in three is difficult.
Well, they used all three in Saturday’s 35-10 victory as junior Madre London led the way with 54 yards on 10 carries and a 7-yard touchdown run. Fifth-year senior Gerald Holmes had 40 yards on nine carries while junior LJ Scott carried it 15 times for 39 yards.
Whether that continues moving forward remains to be seen, but what has become a much bigger concern is whether junior Scott — assumed by many to be slightly ahead of Holmes and London — will continue to be a big part of the rotation following his two fumbles against Bowling Green, including one near the goal-line on the opening drive of the game.
“Obviously, I am very disappointed,” Warner said of Scott’s mishap. “It was a good hit by the defensive guy, but there's no excuse for putting the ball on the ground and LJ knows that and feels bad about it. We drove the length of the field; I felt like we were able to consistently move the ball along and figured we'd have many chances to bounce back.
“Left seven points off the board right there, and that's unacceptable.”
Scott fumbled again in the fourth quarter and it was picked up and returned 46 yards for Bowling Green’s only touchdown of the game. It was debatable whether Scott was down when he fumbled and replay allowed the play to stand without confirming it, but it did reveal what is starting to seem like an alarming trend for Scott.
While there are high expectations for Scott — he entered the season on the Doak Walker Award watch list and there’s been talk about leaving early for the NFL — fumbles have been an issue. He’s had problems in the past, including one last season against Wisconsin that was returned for a touchdown and reversed the momentum.
However, Dantonio made it clear after the game he won’t hesitate to give Scott the ball and still expects all three backs to be a big part of the offense.
“I think all three of those guys are Big Ten running backs and all three of them have had a lot of success,” Dantonio said. “I still think LJ is an outstanding running back and we're going to give him the ball.
“I don't think there's any separation. I wouldn't look for any separation throughout the whole season because I think all three of those guys can carry the load at one point in time or another. They all have shown that they can be effective, regular running backs.”
While Scott had his issues, London had the best day of the group, averaging 5.4 yards a carry.
London got the least amount of work in 2016, carrying the ball just 28 times for 120 yards. But as a redshirt freshman in 2015, he began the season as the starter before a leg injury led to three missed games. He finished with 500 yards on 119 carries with three touchdowns.
Getting back to the form of his first season could mean more work in 2017, though he said he’s just one of many that can get it done.
“We hang our hat on running the ball, pound green pound,” London said. “But we’ve got a lot of playmakers on the team. This year we always said that coming out of the spring game camp that we got a lot of playmakers, more than other teams that we've had. It's just a matter of time until we show the world and Spartan Nation that we have got a lot of playmakers, and it should be a good year.”
As Michigan State prepares to host Western Michigan in Week 2, Dantonio believes some of the mishaps of the opener will fix themselves, and that means he’ll continue to count on all of the Spartans’ running backs.
“The other things will come,” Dantonio said. “It's not indicative of putting the ball in the ground two times with our tailbacks. Good players are going to get their touches. We will continue to have faith in them and play them. You know, LJ, I feel bad for him because he's a very good player. I thought the other two guys ran effectively.”