MSU offense seeks to escape paucity-of-points phase

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke

East Lansing — Mark Dantonio hears it all the time. So does Dave Warner.

Just score more points. Simple enough, right? Run that play where Michigan State scores a touchdown.

Sure, those are the complaints of sometimes frustrated fans, but it’s reality these days for No. 16 Michigan State, a team that has leaned on its defense as it has scored 18 points or fewer in four of its last five games.

For the Spartans’ head coach and co-offensive coordinator, the reality is a daily challenge. Getting a team that is young all over — from quarterback to receiver to offensive line — to consistently score points as the defense is putting it into position to win on a weekly basis has been difficult.

“The head coach comes in there says, ‘Hey, score some points,’” Dantonio said. “It's like I keep saying, run that play over again, when that guy catches that post, runs for a touchdown.”

There so much more to it, though, and the biggest challenge to this point for Michigan State, which heads to Northwestern on Saturday, is putting it all together.


“I do not think we played our best football game yet as a team,” Dantonio said. “Brian Lewerke has not been on fully. We've not run the ball fully. We've not gone through a game where everything is going right for us. We need to have one of those football games as we get here in the second half of the season.

“It would be great to have this one and the next one and the next one. But we're always trying to score points.”

In the last four wins, Michigan State scored 17 in two of the wins and 14 in another. The 30-27 victory at Minnesota was the only exception. Through that stretch, the consistency has lacked. The Spartans ran well against Michigan and Minnesota but were held to less than 100 yards against Iowa and Indiana.

And the passing game has lacked any real punch. Some of it was weather, but Lewerke has had his struggles while the receivers have had trouble at times creating separation.

“The defense has played pretty much well every single game,” Lewerke said. “The offense just needs to step it up. We realize that on the offensive side of the ball.

“After last week, it wasn't the greatest performance by me, so I want to try to show that I'm progressing with the game of football. I'm trying to learn and trying to do my best.”

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Lewerke is seventh in the Big Ten in passing yards a game (194.6) and fifth in passing efficiency (129.4). But he understands there’s more room for improvement.

He has run the ball well, but as teams get used to that, the key will be to become a reliable threat through the air.

“The big thing for Brian right now is that the legs are always good,” Warner said. “The thing we need from Brian is for his pass game progression be a little bit more disciplined as far as going through his reads and not missing any open receivers and then after he goes through that process, then take off.”

If that happens at the same point the running game gets going, the Spartans could see an offensive explosion like they did in 2013. That season, the nonconference portion of the schedule was filled mostly with similar offensive frustrations. In Game 5, at the start of Big Ten play, Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford took off and so did the offense.

Whether something similar is in store remains to be seen, but the formula will remain the same — Michigan State will attempt to run the ball well and develop everything from there.

“When you establish the run game, I think that brings everything into place,” Warner said. “It helps your play-action pass, your drop-back pass. It helps you maintain possession. It doesn’t put you in third-and-long situations. It just helps everything we try and do as an offense.”

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To this point it’s led to underwhelming numbers. The Spartan are fourth in the Big Ten in rushing but are seventh in total offense, ninth in passing, 12th in scoring and 11th in red zone efficiency, scoring 15 touchdowns and kicking five field goal in 25 trips into the red zone.

“I think the productivity is there, when you look at some of the averages and things of that nature or what's the efficiency,” Dantonio said. “Some of the efficiency is there. But then something will happen like, we'll bobble the snap or we'll snap the ball over our head, or something happens, we take a negative yardage play, and all of a sudden you're sitting back there third and eight rather than third and three.

“But I don't think there's any question that as we go forward we want to score more. Just want to win. Bottom line is can we score one more point than they do.”