Column: Brian Lewerke should take a page out of LJ Scott's book — heal first, play later
Sitting on my couch watching No. 24 Michigan State (6-3, 4-2 in Big Ten) beat Maryland (5-4, 3-3) 24-3 Saturday, I scrolled through Twitter like usual, live-tweeting, seeing fan reactions and getting updates from reporters who traveled.
And since the overwhelming debate is whether starting quarterback Brian Lewerke, who’s dealing with a right-shoulder injury suffered against Penn State on Oct. 13, or backup Rocky Lombardi should start against No. 8 Ohio State (8-1, 5-1) Saturday, Lewerke can learn from one of his teammates on how to handle his injury.
Somebody he’s pretty familiar with — running back L.J. Scott.
Scott has been dealing with an ankle injury since the Spartans lost to Arizona State 16-13 on Sept. 8, and missed the next four games before returning against Michigan and Purdue.
In those two games, he rushed 25 times for 77 yards (3.08 yards per carry) with no touchdowns. And after an injury suffered late against Purdue, Dantonio said he didn’t want Scott traveling to Maryland, and is "week-to-week" until further notice.
“He’s been able to practice at times, and other times he can’t,” Dantonio said in his weekly Sunday teleconference. “So, we’ll have to play it by ear.”
The result Saturday was running back Connor Heyward running 15 times for 157 yards and two touchdowns, the first 100-plus yard performance by an MSU running back this season. And the Spartans as a team ran for 269 yards and three touchdowns — MSU totaled 356 offensive yards.
Now let’s go to the injured Lewerke, who went 11-of-20 for 87 yards and an interception with 14:06 left in the fourth quarter, which led to Lombardi replacing the redshirt junior on the next drive and for the remainder of the game.
Dantonio said postgame Saturday he made the decision to start Lewerke Friday night based on what Lewerke told him about how his shoulder is feeling. Dantonio said he was leaning that way anyways, but he felt he “needed to hear it from him first hand on game day,” which Dantonio did.
“He's got an injured arm, I felt like he practiced and deserved that opportunity so I have faith in our starting quarterback and that's the underlying reason,” Dantonio said. “I also think it's a good problem as I said earlier in the week with Rocky playing as well as he did, that we would use him given the opportunity."
Lewerke said he didn’t practice at all the week leading up to Purdue, but practiced “a little more this week and tried to work back into it.”
“Coach said if you feel like you're ready to go you can go,” Lewerke said after MSU’s win over the Terrapins. “I don't think I was 100 percent, but I felt good enough to contribute. The wind obviously didn't help, but overall, we ran the ball really well so that was awesome."
The key: he wasn’t 100 percent.
Guess who also isn’t 100 percent? Scott. And he’s missed five games.
Though Dantonio has said throughout the season it’s Scott’s decision, given Scott knows his body better than his coach, especially with an ankle injury on a running back, limiting how effective Scott can make moves such as juking and spin moves.
“They are the people that are experiencing the things first hand,” Dantonio said. “Everything that I see is second hand or watching film. They have to feel healthy enough to play — (Lewerke) felt healthy enough at practice all week, he threw the ball all week.”
I give Dantonio credit for this. He wants to give his starters, especially those who’ve proven themselves such as Lewerke and Scott, the opportunity to play if they feel healthy enough, which I pretty much agreed with in my column last week.
And with a big game against the Buckeyes looming, Lewerke wants to be back out there Saturday with his arm “feeling a lot better” — just like when he suffered his injury against Penn State, and wanted to play against U-M without practicing all week.
“The main reason I wanted to play that week was to give it my best shot and see what I could do,” Lewerke said. “So, hopefully it'll be better next week."
If it doesn’t, Lewerke should give the reins to Lombardi until he’s 100 percent, who told Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch Saturday he does better when he can prepare for a whole game rather than subbing in during the game.
And while Lewerke told Couch and other reporters his injury is only aggravated when he gets hit and not when he throws, he said still feels pain whenever he tosses it. Which, as seen in his performances against U-M (5-of-25 for 66 yards) and Maryland, means underperforming — even if it was against the top pass defense in the country and the 22nd-ranked pass defense in the nation going into last Saturday's game.
“There’s still a little bit of pain that shoots whenever I throw,” Lewerke told reporters. “And I try to get treatment on that as much as I can and get it away. It’s just something that’ll take time.”
If Lewerke’s feeling pain every time he throws the ball, and not performing at his usual level — in the passing game at least — he should let Lombardi play until he’s 100 percent.
The competitor in him might not want to, especially after hearing the Rocky chants after Lombardi led MSU to a 23-13 win over the Boilermakers, but it’s probably the best for him and his dreams of playing in the NFL to let Lombardi temporarily take over.
Just like Scott has with Heyward, La’Darius Jefferson and Weston Bridges.
And like with Scott, Dantonio isn’t wavering his support for his starting quarterback: “he’s built a foundation” at MSU over the the last year and a half.
“Brian Lewerke is our quarterback,” Dantonio said. “We'll work it from there, but just like any Major League Baseball team, if your starter gets into problems and you have an ace receiver, you use him. That's the way we'll look at things right now. If things aren't going quite well and we want to change it up or want to allow a guy to sit and watch for a minute and get back involved. He's done too much around here not to be considered the starting quarterback.”
Which is all the more reason for Lewerke to let Lombardi temporarily take over the reins of the offense while he heals.