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Michigan State: Five things we learned vs. Rutgers

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Senior Felton Davis shakes hands with Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio as part of Senior Day activities before MSU hosts Rutgers at Spartan Stadium.

Five takeaways from Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News following Michigan State’s 14-10 victory over Rutgers on Saturday

Rocky’s road

Redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi had his chance over the last two weeks to make a play at being Michigan State’s starting quarterback for the bowl game and heading into next season. Instead, the quarterback position looks just as uncertain as it has from the moment Brian Lewerke injured his shoulder during the victory at Penn State. That’s because after Lombardi’s breakout in his first start against Purdue, there hasn’t been much production since. He was 19-for-43 for 173 yards and an interception against Rutgers, just a week after going 15-for-41 for 146 yards and an interception in the loss to Nebraska.

Not all the offensive issues were on Lombardi, but he hasn’t provided the punch the Spartans were hoping for as Lewerke sat out with a bad shoulder. Predicting which of the two will start the bowl game depends on Lewerke’s injury, but if the last few weeks are any indication, Lewerke could get the call again if he’s even close to 100 percent. Lombardi was far from sharp against Rutgers, and even at 80 percent, Lewerke might be the better option in a bowl game. Where that leaves things in the off-season is also tough to gauge, but it would be difficult prediction a scenario where coach Mark Dantonio doesn’t go with the experience of Lewerke.

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Scott’s situation

When Josiah Scott was back in the sidelines for Michigan State’s game against Purdue but did not play, it made clear the plan was to limit the sophomore cornerback so the Spartans could save him a season by redshirting him. It was a position Scott found himself in after injuring his knee in preseason camp and missing the first seven games after having surgery to repair his meniscus.

But when Scott took the field and started against Rutgers, that made four games played. One more and the redshirt is gone. That means, of course, if Scott plays in the bowl game the redshirt is lost.

Mark Dantonio said he wanted Scott to play because MSU needed the win and Scott was on board, saying his focus was to help send the seniors out the right way. Here’s betting Scott plays in the bowl game and forgets about the redshirt. Why? Because odds are a player of his caliber likely wasn’t sticking around for five seasons. If he’s healthy and continues to play well in 2019, there’s no guarantee his back after that, anyway. So, Scott and his family will talk about it over the next few weeks, but expect to see him playing when MSU next takes the field.

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What’s going on?

To get a decent idea of how inept Michigan State’s offense has been the last few weeks, consider the fact that when Matt Sokol scored on an 18-yard pass from Rocky Lombardi in the second quarter Saturday, it had been 153 minutes, 56 seconds since the Spartans last scored a touchdown. That went back to the Maryland game when Connor Heyward ripped off an 80-yard run with 11 minutes to play. From that point, the Michigan State offense was held out of the end zone against Ohio State and Nebraska, totaling more than five quarters without a touchdown.

Trying to determine why the offense has been so bad isn’t simple. The play-calling has not been great and the execution, at times, has been just as bad. A lot of that can be attributed to the massive amount of injuries the Spartans have dealt with as only two players started every game — right tackle Jordan Reid and Tyler Higby, who started at center, left tackle and left guard. Is it fair to put all the blame on any one of those aspects? No, but there’s no debating it’s been the worst offensive performance in Mark Dantonio’s 12 seasons leading the Spartans.

Changes coming?

That leads us to the biggest question on the mind of Michigan State fans — does Mark Dantonio plan on making any staff changes? More specifically, will there be any changes to the offensive staff, namely co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner, whose play-calling has been under fire for more than a season. Dantonio never has been one to make knee-jerk decisions with his staff and he’s proud of the continuity he’s had since his first season as a head coach at Cincinnati in 2004. And he wasn’t talking like a coach ready to make any moves after Saturday’s win. “I know everybody out there is on a warpath and the wolf is at the door as I said last week,” he said. “That is why I am the head coach, so I can deflect some of that.”

That’s not a guarantee, of course. There could be changes. Some as big as letting coaches go and bringing in new voices or something as simple as changing responsibilities among the current staff. Bottom line, Dantonio doesn’t have a history of “firing” coaches and it would be an uncharacteristic move for him to push aside Warner, a coach that has been with him now for 15 seasons.

Special seniors

Even with the way this season has gone and looking back at the difficulties of 2016, it’s hard to look at Michigan State’s senior class and not be impressed. They didn’t set any records and head into a bowl game with a 32-19 record, but they were part of a Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff berth in 2015 and were at the core of the revival in 2017 when the Spartans improved by seven victories from the previous season.

They were also part of helping MSU have its best graduation rate in program history and could see a player or two end up in the NFL. So, no, it wasn’t a class that wowed anyone. But it was a group that had its share of success and won’t soon be forgotten.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau