Niyo: MSU’s rebuild sped up, thanks to Brian Lewerke

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Consider where they were a year ago. And consider not just where they were headed, but who was leading them.

Now consider how the script has flipped for Michigan State’s football team. And realize that whatever happens Saturday in East Lansing, where the Spartans will host No. 7 Penn State in a game that’ll help decide the Big Ten championship race, this team’s future seems to be in pretty good hands.

At the quarterback position, that is. At the one position where it matters most.

A future NFL quarterback took the majority of the snaps in all but two of Mark Dantonio’s first 10 seasons as the Spartans’ head coach. And not coincidentally, those two seasons — in a 7-6 finish in 2009 and last year’s 3-9 debacle — are the ones most Michigan State fans would just as soon forget.

It’s too early to say what Brian Lewerke’s future holds as a pro prospect, though Dantonio hasn’t been shy with comparisons to Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook. But there are encouraging signs about just what his college career could look like before it’s done, and his most recent performance — even in a losing effort at Northwestern — has to be considered another of those.

Lewerke set school single-game records for passing yards (445), total offense (475), and completions (39) in Saturday’s 39-31 triple-overtime loss in Evanston. He led a tying drive in the final minutes of regulation, completing 10 of 11 passes and scrambling for a fourth-down conversion along the way.

Yet it was the final play of the game that stood out, both as a teaching moment for the player and an instructive example of why this Michigan State coaching staff is sold on Lewerke.

More: Spartans still upbeat with looming gauntlet

Facing second-and-10 from the 25 and trailing by eight in the third OT, Lewerke had the football knocked from his hands as he dropped back to pass. He managed to corral the fumble and as he rolled toward the sideline, he made an ill-advised heave to the end zone in the middle of the field. The pass was intended for Matt Sokol, but it was intercepted by Northwestern’s Nate Hall.

“I probably should’ve thrown it away,” Lewerke said after the game, before quickly correcting himself. “I mean, I should’ve thrown it away.”

Plenty of work to do

That wasn’t the only throw he was lamenting, either. The Spartans knew they’d have chances to attack the Wildcats down the field, and they did, including a 60-yarder to freshman Cody White on the opening drive to set up their first touchdown. And when it was time to play catch-up in the fourth quarter, “his confidence was soaring,” receiver Felton Davis said, “when we started to open up the playbook and throw it.”

But Lewerke, who took plenty of risks in the passing game with the run game still grounded, also overthrew his receivers on a few deep shots.

More: Freshman White grows in MSU’s balanced passing attack

“For some reason, it’s harder for me to hit the wide-open ones than it is to hit the covered ones,” he said. “I just have to work on that a little more.”

Again, though, that’s the good news here for Michigan State. There’s plenty of work to be done with this offense, which still ranks 12th in the Big Ten in scoring. But there’s also lots of growth potential, with a redshirt sophomore at quarterback, only one senior on the offensive line and a receiving corps that features a junior, a sophomore and young receiving corps that features a pair of true freshmen.

Statistically speaking, Lewerke is ahead of his predecessors at this stage of his career. Eight games into his first full season as a starter, he’s completing 61.4 percent of his passes (159-of-259) for 1,807 yards with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. By comparison, Cousins had a 60.9 percent completion rate with 1,744 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions through eight games as a redshirt sophomore in 2009, while Connor Cook was at 59.8 percent (118-of-197) with 1,238 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions.

“Yeah, there are some similarities there,” offensive coordinator Dave Warner said, when asked last week to compare this year’s progress to what he saw with Cook in 2013.

But while the circumstances are much different — the supporting cast was far more experienced in ’13 — the opportunities are there just the same, as Dantonio noted while looking ahead to this week’s showdown at Spartan Stadium.

“At the beginning of the year, if we got to November and said we still had a chance to win a championship and we were 4-1 in the conference, I think we’d take that,” he said.

“And that’s where we’re at.”

Praise from the other side

As you’d expect, Penn State head coach James Franklin had lots of nice things to say about Michigan State on Tuesday, and he noted it’ll be a change for his defense going from Ohio State’s tempo last weekend in Columbus to the “smash-mouth offense” at Michigan State “where they’re going to try to run the ball down your throat and play-action pass.”

“But I think the thing that’s making them go is their quarterback,” he added.

How far the Spartans will go from here this season is hard to say, what with a trip to Columbus immediately following Saturday’s game against the Nittany Lions.

But with Lewerke leading the offense — and recent history as a guide — it’s hard not to feel like they’re headed in the right direction.