This is a very big game for the Ohio State football team this weekend, which means it is time to ask for help. As we do in big games, we head to the other side of the field for some proper insights. This week, we check in with Matt Wenzel (@mwenzel2), who covers Michigan State football for MLive.com.
As always, this question-and-answer session falls under the Intergalactic Rules and Supreme Regulations of the Question and Answer Code, which just means that I am asking the questions and Matt is answering them.
Let’s get things started.
Q 1. MSU has lost two games while holding opponents under 100 yards rushing. How did that happen?
It’s a two-part answer. One, those teams chose to throw the ball a lot instead of continually running into a wall. And two, Michigan State’s offense didn’t do its part.
In the first of those two instances, Michigan State blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of a 16-13 loss at Arizona State. The Spartans limited the Sun Devils to just three points through three quarters on the road in 100-degree heat. That’s a game you’ve got to win. Instead, Manny Wilkins threw for 380 yards, N’Keal Harry finally broke through with a touchdown catch and Michigan State left the desert lamenting missed opportunities.
In the second, Clayton Thorson took advantage of one blown coverage and dropped a pair of dimes into good coverage for touchdowns to lead Northwestern to a 29-19 win in East Lansing. Sure, the Wildcats rushed for only eight yards, but it didn’t matter because Thorson threw for 373 and three scores. And, Michigan State’s offense sputtered again.
Q2. What have been the one or two biggest problems for the Michigan State offense this season? The lack of scoring over the last five games is impossible to ignore.
When you have an offense based on running the ball and you can’t run the ball, that’s a problem. Michigan State is averaging just 125.6 yards per game rushing, which is on track to be the worst total in Mark Dantonio’s 12 seasons coaching the Spartans.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke has regressed from last year’s breakout performance and playing through a right throwing shoulder injury obviously hasn’t helped.
Injuries have also been a significant factor. The Spartans have used seven different starting combinations on the offensive line in nine games. Receiver Felton Davis, who was Michigan State’s top playmaker, had his college career ended early due to a torn Achilles tendon last month. Starting receiver Cody White missed four games with a broken hand, starting receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. sat out two games with an apparent ankle injury and other key targets have been sidelined. LJ Scott, who led the team in rushing each of the last three seasons and returned for his senior year instead of leaving for the NFL, has missed five games due to injury and is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry with zero touchdowns.
Very little has gone right on offense this season. And that is after losing just one starter from the unit from last year and an offseason focus on ramping up production.
Q3. Injuries have been big this season. The secondary has been part of that and has given up some yards this season. They are getting healthier, though, no?
Yes and no. Cornerback Josiah Scott, who started 12 games as a true freshman last year and led the team with 10 pass break-ups, suffered a torn meniscus in fall camp, which sidelined him for the first eight games. He played all but one of 53 defensive snaps in last week’s win at Maryland and his return is a huge boost to the secondary, playing opposite Justin Layne.
However, there is still uncertainty in depth at cornerback. Josh Butler, who has started four games this year filling in for Josiah Scott, has missed the last four games with an undisclosed injury. Tre Person, who also has four starts, was a late scratch against Maryland. Both are questionable this week.
Michigan State’s safeties have been consistent this season as Khari Willis and David Dowell have both started all nine games.
Additionally, the passing numbers put up against Michigan State are a bit misleading and inflated by teams abandoning the run. The Spartans rank 98th in the nation in passing yards allowed at 253.4 per game, but they have given up only 11 touchdowns and are tied for 14th in the nation in interceptions with 12.
Q4. Where do you think Michigan State is most vulnerable in this game?
Winning requires scoring points and that has obviously been a problem this season. I don’t think the Buckeyes will hammer the Spartans by 45 points or run for 335 yards like they did last year in Columbus. Michigan State’s defense should keep the game close, but the offense simply hasn’t shown enough to believe the Spartans will be able to outscore Ohio State. That’s even if the Buckeyes are held well below their average of 42.2 points per game.
Q5. How limited is Brian Lewerke and if he can’t go, are you sure Tyler O’Connor has exhausted his eligibility?
Lewerke’s shoulder has been a widely-discussed topic the last three weeks. After having his streak of 20 straight starts snapped as backup Rocky Lombardi led the team to a win against Purdue, Lewerke returned against Maryland. He earned the start by telling Dantonio he could execute the gameplan but, following the win, admitted he wasn’t fully healthy and had pain in his shoulder.
Dantonio countered Tuesday by saying Lewerke wouldn’t play if he was hurt and no players are 100 percent at this point in the season.
So, it’s tough to say just how limited Lewerke is throwing the ball but he’s obviously playing through an injury. He was averaging 264.5 passing yards per game through the first six games but is 16-for-45 for 153 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception in his last two outings combined. The first was against Michigan, which has the nation’s top passing defense, and the second came on a windy day at Maryland. So, the situations haven’t been ideal playing through the injury.
Although Dantonio reiterated this week Lewerke is the starter, he said he will turn to Lombardi in if needed. So, keep an eye out for that possibility on Saturday.