East Lansing — For some, Michigan State’s offense won’t be good enough until the Spartans are throwing the ball nearly every down.
While that might be an exaggeration, there’s been a definite feeling from those who call Michigan State their team for Mark Dantonio to open up his offense and make it look more like some of the up-tempo, spread teams the Spartans face on a more regular basis.
But that’s simply not happening. Dantonio has a core belief that running the ball is the key to a balanced, effective offense. He said so a few weeks ago, pointing out the goal each week is to run the ball 40 times, regardless of the yardage gained.
“I don't care if you get 120 yards or 130 yards or 140 yards or 240,” Dantonio said. “If you can run it 40 times, you've got a pretty good chance to win. That's been our success.”
A few days later, Michigan State ran it 36 times for 123 yards and won at Penn State. In fact, in three of the last four games, Michigan State has run the ball 36, 40 and 46 times. Not coincidentally, the Spartans have won those three games.
Until last week at Maryland, however, the Spartans weren’t exactly running over teams. That changed against the Terrapins as Michigan State gained 269 yards, by far the best output of the season. Sophomore running back Connor Heyward was the leader, gaining a career-best 157 yards while scoring twice, including on an 80-yard run in the fourth quarter.
“I think the O-line did a great job blocking, more than any other game,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “When I hand the ball off I do my play fake and I look at the line and kinda see if there is a hole there for the running back to run and I saw more holes there than I have all year. I think that’s a testament to the O-line. They’ve been working together well. I’m sure Connor would say the same thing. They’ve been working well the past couple of weeks and it’s starting to flow.”
It’s been a struggle all season for Michigan State to get to this point. An offense that is used to imposing its will on teams by running the ball, this season the Spartans have been unable to find much of a rhythm.
A lot of that has been due to the constantly changing personnel thanks to a large number of injuries. Last week’s starting lineup of Cole Chewins (LT), Tyler Higby (LG), Blake Bueter (C), Luke Campbell (RG) and Jordan Reid (RT) was the first time all season the Spartans had the same starters on the offensive line in back-to-back weeks.
They’ve also been dealing with injuries to Lewerke and nearly every receiver in the playing rotation, including losing Felton Davis III for the season to a ruptured Achilles. It’s made finding offensive balance difficult.
The biggest injury, though, has been to senior running back LJ Scott. He has missed five total games with an ankle injury and there’s no telling when or if he’ll be back.
In the meantime, Heyward is taking advantage.
“He’s done a great job,” Lewerke said. “I don’t think he’s really focused on whether he’s a backup or starter. He just wants to get out there and play as well as he can. He showed he can do a lot last week. I think that helped him for sure.”
The key for No. 18 Michigan State (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) will be to continue the same sort of effectiveness against No. 10 Ohio State when the teams square off at noon Saturday.
The Buckeyes have had their share of defensive struggles this season, a fact not aided by the loss of defensive end Nick Bosa. They’re sixth in the Big Ten against the run, allowing 153.4 yards a game, but Dantonio understands it will still be tough sledding for the Spartans.
“With (Bosa) out, they are replacing three defensive linemen that are playing in the NFL. That's tough duty,” Dantonio said. “The games have been closer. They are still 8-1. Everybody is acting like, poor Ohio State; they are still 8-1 and ranked in the top 10. They are pretty good and they have got some playmakers up front.”
Probably more playmakers than Maryland, but Michigan State did build some confidence last week.
From the offensive line to the backs, it was the sort of performance the Spartans have been looking for all season.
“I think it was more about us,” Heyward said. “Our O-line went out there and controlled the line of scrimmage the whole game. We went out there and got downhill faster. We weren’t doing too much dancing. We just were like, ‘All right, we’re gonna get four (yards) no matter what. Run through you, run around you, anyway to get four every play.’”
Ohio State at Michigan State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Michigan State 6-3, 4-2 Big Ten; Ohio State 8-1, 5-1
Line: Ohio State by 3.5