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Column: Indiana highlighted MSU's early-season strengths, flaws

September 24, 2018

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Saturday night could have been the breaking point for Michigan State football.

In their Big Ten season opener, the Spartans either could have regained momentum after the bye week and falling to Arizona State, or went back to their winning ways.

They went with the former, beating Indiana, 35-21, at Memorial Stadium.

And some positives came out of the win, such as the run defense being stout again, only allowing 29 yards and recording nine tackles for loss.

The pass rush tallied four sacks and forced two interceptions — the first being returned 69 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Shakur Brown to give MSU a 14-0 lead with 5:35 left in the first quarter. 

“We stopped the run and closed down some passing lanes,” coach Mark Dantonio said in his postgame news conference. “We played very well there.” 

Wide receiver Jalen ‘Speedy’ Nailor also emerged with 79 rushing yards on three attempts, one catch for 16 yards and two touchdowns — one of them being a 75-yard run off a jet sweep to make it 35-21 MSU with 3:17 left in the fourth quarter — after injuries to wideouts Cam Chambers and Darrell Stewart Jr. gave Nailor more playing time.

Tight end Matt Dotson caught an 11-yard touchdown to end the first half with a 21-7 MSU lead, and recorded the first catch by an MSU tight end this season.

Even kicker Matt Coghlin ran it six yards on a fake field goal to give the Spartans a 28-7 lead with 4:47 left in the third quarter.

But, IU also showed the negatives. Which, through Michigan State’s first three games, have been very apparent.

First, quarterback Brian Lewerke needs to work on his decision making as he went 14-for-25 for 213 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions against the Hoosiers, which brings his season totals to 64-for-97, averaging 271.3 yards per game, five touchdowns and four interceptions.

He said there’s been “communication issues”, so far amongst the offense, which converted just two of 13 third downs against the Hoosiers.

“There’s been communication issues with everyone,” Lewerke said. “I just need to get (the ball) out of my hand quicker.”

Then there’s the run game, which has only produced 3.3 yards per carry and didn’t improve at all Saturday night against an IU defense that's allowing 173.2 yards per game. La’Darius Jefferson had 34 rushing yards and led all running backs in rushing attempts with 10, but he wasn’t the leading rusher on the night, Nailor was.

That’s something Dantonio isn’t too keen on going forward, along with racking up 26 penalties causing a loss of 216 yards.

“We’ve got to run the ball more effectively,” Dantonio said. “It was tough sledding, and we can’t hurt ourselves with errors with penalties. We’ve got to make better decisions at times as well with the football, because we put the ball on the ground too much.” 

When the depth chart was released Tuesday, backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi was listed as the starting punter after starter Jake Hartbarger got a bone bruise on his leg against Arizona State. 

Dantonio even tried to confuse IU by dressing four players as No. 12 — Lombardi, wide receiver Nick Krumm, kicker Tyler Hunt and Bryce Baringer, who made his first-career MSU appearance Saturday.

“I wanted to just be able to say, ‘Hey, No. 12 get in there’ and have everybody look at me,” Dantonio said. “I felt with the off week, we had some punting situations, who would be the punter, and Rocky was gonna be the punter. And then we found two other guys and said, ‘Hey, put them in at No. 12.’ Then we found out we couldn’t do that … so we had to put (Hunt) in at 97 and (Garinger) at 98.” 

But, in fact, Lombardi didn’t see the field once. Instead, Hunt handled four punts for an average of 38.8 yards, while Baringer punted twice for an average of 34 yards.

The reason for no Lombardi? Because Hunt and Baringer did better in practice.

“(Lombardi’s) still fully capable, we may go back to him,” Dantonio said. “And we got another guy at home that can punted well this week. We just couldn’t take four punters with us.” 

And with Hartbarger gone, the Spartans lose a key weapon on special teams as he booted it an average of 48.8 yards before getting injured. 

Which makes Saturday’s game at noon against Central Michigan (1-3, 0-1 in MAC) a bit of a testing ground. A place where MSU can finally sure up its early-season issues.

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