Niyo: Spartans' new offense looks a lot like the old one

John Niyo
The Detroit News


East Lansing — Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. Even better, occasionally it’s a great defense.

And for the moment, that’ll be more than enough for Michigan State, which manhandled Tulsa, 28-7, in its season opener before a crowd of 72,005 at Spartan Stadium.

But if you came here looking for proof the Spartans’ offense was either new or improved — the fans have been hearing for weeks, if not months, that it'll be both — you left empty-handed. That explains why the home team got an earful from the boobirds Friday night.

“The crowd reacts how they want, and you can’t really control that,” senior quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “And it’s probably right for them to do so, in a sense. The offense was lacking.”

It was. And if it still is, that’s a problem, obviously. Because few teams were lacking more than Michigan State a year ago, when the Spartans wasted a defense that ranked among the nation’s best and slogged their way to a 7-6 finish.

Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke hands the ball off to running back La'Darius Jefferson in the third quarter.

Friday night, they looked like a team capable of repeating that feat. Which is a decidedly different story than narrative we heard all summer, that this year would mirror 2013 instead, when the Spartans rebounded from a frustrating 7-6 season thanks to a dominant defense and an offense that finally got rolling.

That still could happen here, I suppose. The defense certainly looks as good as advertised, if not better, led by a dominant front seven that obliterated Tulsa at the point of attack. The Spartans finished with a whopping 13 tackles for loss, including six sacks, and actually set a program record as Tulsa finished with minus-73 yards rushing.

But the offense? Lacking is putting it mildly, I’d say.

Sputtering along

The opening drive was productive, at least, as Michigan State went 73 yards on nine plays to take a 7-0 lead on a nifty 15-yard pass play from Lewerke to running back Connor Heyward. But two costly Tulsa penalties kick-started that drive, and then the next 17 plays the Spartans ran produced just 51 total yards.

Even when the defense and special-teams units teed the ball up for the offense, Lewerke & Co. couldn’t fully capitalize.

A blocked punt gave Michigan State the ball at Tulsa’s 24-yard line to start the second quarter. But the Spartans could only muster four yards and settled for a 38-yard field goal. On the next series, All-America candidate Kenny Willekes forced and recovered a fumble and Michigan State took possession at the Tulsa 36. Seven plays netted just eight yards on the ensuing drive, though, thanks in part to a couple costly penalties, and Matt Coghlin booted another field goal.

On and on it went like that, as the Spartans committed 14 penalties, costing themselves 122 yards — or 42 more yards than Tulsa finished the game with Friday. Several of those flags fell on the offensive line, and a few of them were drive-killers. A holding penalty here, a false start there.

But when they weren’t going backward, they weren’t exactly moving forward. At least not the way you’d expect against a defense that ranked 118th nationally against the run a year ago. Facing Tulsa’s 3-3-5 stack, the Spartans managed just 108 yards on 40 carries, and the trio of running backs — Heyward, La’Darius Jefferson and Elijah Collins — combined for only 68 yards on 30 carries.

Some of that’s on them, but clearly much of it is on an offensive line that struggled mightily with injuries and ineffective play a year ago. So consider this an inauspicious start in both regards. And probably not a good omen.

Already missing one projected starter at left tackle in Cole Chewins (back), the Spartans reshuffled their starting five again with Chewins’ expected replacement, AJ Arcuri, also sidelined by injury. Instead, it was right guard Kevin Jarvis moving over to left tackle and sophomore Matt Carrick getting his first career start at right guard. The interior line was a juggling act for much of the night with a handful of players rotating through, and when push came to shove, the Spartans didn’t do nearly enough of either.

“Sometimes it’s leverage issues, sometimes it’s not getting the job done,” coach Mark Dantonio said.

Boo reviews

But what if they simply can’t get the job done? Then what? That’ll be the nagging question until the Spartans prove otherwise -- "There's so much more we can do with this offense," Heyward promised -- and it won’t matter who’s calling the plays.

Friday night did mark the debut of Brad Salem as offensive coordinator, and there were some notable changes. There were more shotgun and pistol formations, some run-pass option plays, even a few instances where Salem had the offense running tempo. Lewerke also used his legs a little more, as promised.

And then there was that short-yardage package in the red zone when Rocky Lombardi came on to replace Lewerke. But while it worked the first time he came on and converted a fourth-and-1 keeper, it sure didn’t the second time when he ran the exact same play and got stuffed.

“There is no magic play, guys,” Dantonio said, on a night where there clearly was no rabbit in the hat.

Maybe there's something up the coaches' collective sleeve. Something we won't see until the competition requires it. But short of magic plays, it'd have been a little more encouraging if we'd seen some explosive ones Friday night.

Instead, there were just a lot of poorly executed ones -- and that’s not all on the players, no matter what the coaches say. So that’s why they all heard the boos to start the holiday weekend. Because the fans have seen this playbook before — stifling defense, stunted offense — and they know it’s destined to fail in the end.

"The way we were playing," receiver Cody White admitted, "I would have booed myself."

Now, to be fair, the start of that 2013 season everyone keeps pointing to for inspiration was just as ugly offensively. The Spartans began that Rose Bowl campaign with an opener at Western Michigan that was nearly as offensive as this: Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook combined to go 17-for-36 for 116 yards in the '13 opener and the Spartans used a pair of defensive touchdowns to win, 26-13. (It wasn’t much better the next week as the defense again scored two TDs in a 21-6 win over South Florida.)

So there’s still time to get things corrected, as Dantonio was quick to point out in his postgame assessment. 

But in the meantime, the Spartans shouldn’t expect a lot of patience.

“Everybody’s gotta voice their approval or disapproval, at times,” Dantonio said, shrugging it off. “So, hey, I’m good. Let’s go.”

On that last count, he'll get no argument from anyone. But the question remains: Can they really get this thing going, or not?

Twitter: @JohnNiyo