Michigan State: Five things we learned
East Lansing — The long wait finally ended and Michigan State got back on the field Saturday.
And, no matter the outcome, the Spartans were sure to be happy about that.
The bonus was the fact Michigan State rolled to a 35-10 win over Bowling Green. And while the start was sluggish and the turnovers were on the high side, there were plenty of positives when diving into the details.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the Spartans’ victory to open the season:
■ 1. Offensive balance: No, Bowling Green is not a high-level FBS team and they might struggle to compete in the Mid-American Conference this season after plummeting to a 4-8 mark a year ago. But the Falcons do have a history of playing at a high level and there are some players on that roster. It makes Michigan State’s offensive balance — 250 yards passing and 215 on the ground — fairly impressive.
The start was slow, as the Spartans blew a chance at a touchdown on the opening drive because of an LJ Scott fumble and didn’t find the end zone until the second quarter, but once the offense found its rhythm things started to go more smoothly. Quarterback Brian Lewerke was efficient, completing 22 of 33 passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions while choosing the right times to tuck the ball and run. The offensive line is still a work in progress and didn’t get quite the push it needed at times in the running game but protected Lewerke well while the depth of talent at wide receiver was clear as seven caught at least one pass.
■ 2. Receiver depth: Michigan State entered the game feeling confident it had playmakers at wide receiver, they just hadn’t shown it much in game action. If Saturday is any indication, the Spartans might find this season that wide receiver ends up a position of strength with junior Felton Davis and sophomore Darrell Stewart standing out.
Davis, who has been hampered the last two seasons by injury, had four grabs but two were for touchdowns, including a one-handed catch while getting held early in the third quarter. Stewart, who entered the game with just three career receptions, had a team-high six on Saturday for 85 yards while showing some burst after the catch and in the running game. Sophomore Trishton Jackson had three catches but might have the most explosiveness of the group while redshirt freshman Cam Chambers along with true freshmen Cody White and Hunter Rison each had one catch with Chambers showing toughness getting extra yards after the catch. Freshman Laress Nelson got a grab late showing there will be no shortage of options for Lewerke.
■ 3. Youth served: It was evident in the receiving game as three true freshmen and a redshirt freshman all had at least one catch, but the Spartans were trotting out first-timers all over the field. Not only did Michigan State play nine true freshmen on Saturday, nine redshirt freshmen also made their debut. It’s a number that was big for the opener — MSU played nine true freshmen all of last season — and it might grow as co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel indicated there are a few more true freshmen close to being ready.
In addition to the receivers that played, other true freshman that got on the field included tight end Matt Dotson, right guard Kevin Jarvis and right tackle Jordan Reid on offense while linebacker Antjuan Simmons, defensive end Jacub Panasiuk and cornerback Josiah Scott all played on defense. Some saw a little more playing time than others, but it’s clear after one game — Michigan State will play the best players, regardless of class.
■ 4. Was that pressure on the QB? OK, no one will look at the stat sheet after the game and be wowed by the fact Michigan State finished with one sack, it did hurry the quarterback eight times. After a 2016 season when the Spartans managed just 11 sacks for the entire year, any sign of life in that part of the game will be gladly accepted. Linebacker Chris Frey got the sack while a host of players combined to get Bowling Green QB James Morgan off the spot.
Redshirt freshman Brandon Randle looked good in his limited time at defensive end while Kenny Willekes also came close to the quarterback. The Spartans got solid pressure from the interior, as well, but while the numbers provide some promise moving forward, at some point they’ll need to start getting home and turning some of those hurries into sacks.
■ 5. It wasn’t all great: It was the first game of the season, so there were some kinks, for sure. The biggest problem was the fact Michigan State fumbled the ball four times and lost three of them. What’s most concerning is the fact LJ Scott lost two of them and one came at the 1-yard line on the first drive of the game. Coach Mark Dantonio said he’s not deterred from using Scott, but fumbling has become an issue for him and with Gerald Holmes and Madre London running well, it could mean Scott falls behind in the rotation.
On the defensive side the numbers look good as Bowling Green had just 212 total yards and Tyson Smith had an interception returned for a touchdown. But in the first half – the first quarter, especially – Bowling Green receivers were routinely getting open behind the MSU secondary. The only thing that prevented big plays was the fact Morgan simply misfired on several passes while the Falcons receivers dropped a couple more. The coverage was better as the game progressed, but plays like that generally won’t get missed in the Big Ten.