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Wojo: Spartans sputter and fall, can't find their missing offense

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio takes issue with a no-call by officials in the second quarter.

East Lansing — Brian Lewerke looked lost. Mark Dantonio looked lost. Offensive coordinator Dave Warner looked bewildered, grasping for answers and swiping at air.

Michigan State’s offense never looked as lost as it did in the closing minutes of a crushing 29-19 loss to Northwestern Saturday. Receivers are hurt, the offensive line is battered and the Spartans (3-2) are reeling, with no clear way to right themselves. But sorry, this isn’t all about injuries.

In a long season, teams get outmanned at times. The Spartans got outmanaged and outsmarted, stubbornly sticking to a plan they’re not currently equipped to execute.

It came down to one yard, and their staggering inability to get it. Dantonio was so frustrated, he took an enormous risk and tried again on fourth-and-1 from his own 11 with 3:09 left, trailing 22-19. It failed miserably, as Connor Heyward run smack into the pile for no gain, game essentially over. The Wildcats (2-3) scored three plays later and beat the Spartans for the third straight time.

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“We can’t get a yard, that’s troublesome, that’s execution to me,” Dantonio said. “I was pretty certain we were gonna get the first down, so I was playing the percentages, taking an aggressive approach. I’m sure most people would’ve punted on fourth and 1.”

You absolutely punt — the Spartans had two timeouts remaining, down only three — if you fully trust your defense. But Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson was carving them up with his mid-range passing game. You go for it if you trust your quarterback, and it looked like a perfect spot for a Lewerke sneak, but he has struggled behind the makeshift line. You go for it if you trust your offensive line, which you can’t right now, or your running game, anemic without the injured LJ Scott.

Futile fourths

Now, Dantonio has to wonder how much he should trust Warner, the embattled coordinator who keeps searching for something that might not be there. Michigan State has been outscored 51-7 in the fourth quarter the past four games, and this was a Northwestern team that had been outscored 59-13 in second halves this season.

“There’s always going to be second-guesses, without a doubt,” Warner said. “It happens all the time, win or lose. I’m not sure what the answer is, what the reason is, why we’re not executing at the end of games, but obviously it needs to be addressed and corrected.”

Injuries? Sure. Young players? Sure.

Poor play-calling? Yep, part of the problem.

“I gotta find a way to call plays that work,” Warner said. “I’ve been searching for that every game. I’ll take responsibility for that.”

As he should. Oh, he tried a few new things. There was a flea-flicker that went incomplete. There was a lateral from Lewerke to Weston Bridges that gained 24 yards, but was overturned on review that showed Bridges narrowly caught the ball ahead of where it was pitched, an illegal forward pass.

There was a double-reverse that worked brilliantly, with Felton Davis III taking the pitch and racing 48 yards for a touchdown that cut Northwestern’s lead to 14-12. The problem is, that trick play made Davis the team’s leading rusher, ahead of backs La’Darius Jefferson (15 yards) and Heyward (12).

Injuries force adjustments, and adjustments prevent predictability. For instance, Northwestern’s best offensive player, running back Jeremy Larkin, just had his career ended, and Pat Fitzgerald nearly sprung the upset on Michigan last week too. In this one, he actually dared Michigan State to go for it on that fourth-and-1, declining a penalty that would’ve made it third-and-6 from the 6.

Pressing the issue

On defense, when the Spartans are good, they can be very good. But they’re prone to stubbornness there too. They’re No. 1 in the nation in rushing defense, and held the Wildcats to 8 yards. Sounds gaudy, except Michigan State’s zeal to be the best against the run comes at the expense of its pass defense. The Spartans don’t often sell out to pressure the quarterback — Thorson was sacked once and had tons of time — and long have been susceptible to the short passing game, with their linebackers focused on the run.

Michigan State came in 114th in the nation in pass defense, and Thorson was in a terrific rhythm, completing 31 of 47 for 373 yards. Can’t run the ball on Michigan State? Don’t bother trying. Find different ways.

Meanwhile, Lewerke was under siege at times, plays blown up by bad snaps and poor protection. I asked if he presses with key pieces out, such as Scott and receiver Cody White.

“Maybe a little bit, yeah,” Lewerke said. “On the interception, it was just a poor decision, I didn’t really see the guy. In the red zone, it’s penalties, or drops, or me throwing a bad ball, all of the above.”

Michigan State generally has been a decent third-down team, but was four-for-15. Receiver Darrell Stewart eased back into the lineup after missing time because of an injury, and he and Lewerke miscommunicated on a couple passes. Davis was his reliable self, but he also was gassed, used extensively and shadowed by Northwestern’s defense.

There are no easy solutions here, although improved health is a start. Getting Lewerke on the run more, taking advantage of his mobility, is another possibility.

The Spartans’ only blemish before Saturday was a 16-13 loss at Arizona State, and they hoped to be a factor in the Big Ten race. That’s far less likely now. Northwestern can be tricky, as Michigan State knows, but it came in on a three-game losing streak. Now the Spartans face Penn State on the road, followed by Michigan at home, and this could go from treacherous to disastrous if they’re not careful.

“(On offense), some is execution, some may be play-calling, some may be decision-making, where to go with the ball, and maybe pass protection breaking down,” Dantonio said. “We’ll find the answers, I feel pretty confident of that. We’ll right the ship. The main thing is, we stay focused, stay together, don’t get pulled apart.”

Linebacker Joe Bachie said similar things, vowing to challenge teammates because “you can’t let it snowball downhill.” Tackle Cole Chewins returned from injury and played a bit, and Dantonio alluded to getting other players back soon. He also made it clear, that’s not the only reason the Spartans have sputtered.

“I’m never gonna stand up here and make excuses and say we should not have won the game because we had too many injuries,” he said. “We’ll certainly look at everything. This is a football team that didn’t get it done, that’s the bottom line. As close as it was, it felt like it was just getting fouled up, felt like it was spinning out of control.”

It spun madly in the final minutes, from the failed fourth down to a last desperate drive that stalled when tight end Matt Sokol fell a yard short of the goal line with 30 seconds left. The Spartans under Dantonio have been very good at finding those key yards in key moments. They’ve got a lot of searching to do now. @bobwojnowski