Since starting Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke injured his right shoulder in a 21-17 win over Penn State on Oct. 13, the talk in East Lansing has been about the quarterbacks.
The other quarterback in this discussion is backup Rocky Lombardi, who made his second career start in the Spartans’ (6-5, 4-4 in Big Ten) 9-6 loss to Nebraska this past Saturday afternoon.
And it was less than impressive.
The redshirt freshman went 15-of-41 for 146 yards, an interception and a lost fumble early in the fourth quarter, and ran the ball nine times for 53 yards.
A few drops by tight ends and wide receivers throughout the game played a role in Lombardi's subpar numbers. Though, Lombardi said — probably to defend his teammates — “he didn’t see any drops.”
Not according to his coach.
“We had too many drops. If you've got to point to one thing in the football game, it would be the dropped passes," MSU coach Mark Dantonio said.
Lombardi led an offense that totaled 289 yards against a Cornhuskers defense which ranked 107th in the nation in yards allowed (449.4 yards per game) going into Saturday’s matchup.
“I thought Lombardi played pretty well,” Dantonio said. “At the end of the day, you've got to put the ball in the end zone in the red zone.''
Yes, Lombardi had a good performance in his first career start in MSU's 23-13 win against Purdue — which now has the 119th ranked pass defense in the country — going 26-of-46 for 318 yards and two touchdowns.
"I felt pretty confident in my first start, and I still feel pretty confident,” Lombardi told reporters. “I think it's the same. Obviously, the main difference between this start is you're in the loudest place in the Big Ten, the atmosphere was great. That was a big difference.”
But what we saw Saturday against Nebraska goes beyond whether Lombardi or a hurt Lewerke should start.
Instead, MSU’s loss against the Cornhuskers showed the offense is too inept to support its defense, which allowed 244 yards on the 13th-ranked offense in the nation going into Saturday, no matter who's playing quarterback.
Running back Connor Heyward was the lone bright spot on offense, running 21 times for 80 yards and catching a team-high five passes for 78 yards. And three weeks ago against Maryland, the sophomore ran for a career-high 157 yards and two touchdowns.
So, in the run game, there’s potential.
However, when the passing game can’t get it going, it allows defenses to stack the line of scrimmage in anticipation for the run, which makes it harder for Heyward and the other running backs to make plays.
The offensive struggles might also be due to plays not being run effectively, which Dantonio said stems more from a lack of execution rather than poor play calling from his offensive coordinators, Dave Warner and Jim Bollman.
“The play calling was fine,” Dantonio said. “There's an execution factor that's involved here. Some of it's the weather, some of it's (Nebraska) making plays on the ball, some of it's us."
All of this causes the defense to spend more time on the field, and frustration.
“There were times where plays could have been made,” linebacker Joe Bachie told reporters postgame. “We saw it as a defense on the sideline. Offensive coaches saw it. Everyone saw it. Just make the plays when it comes to you. You’ve done it your whole life. And that’s kind of gotta be the message.”
And the frustration about the offense’s lack of playmaking and execution isn't only felt by the players, but by Dantonio as well.
"I would think if there's a level of frustration, it would come from the head coach too,” Dantonio said. “So yeah, I'm frustrated about points.”
You and the rest of MSU’s fan base, Dantonio.
With the teams' last game before its bowl game being against a one-win Rutgers team that's winless in conference play, it would be great to try out a different offensive look that can potentially be implemented next season.
Because even with all the injuries that have ravaged the team this season — wideout Felton Davis III (season-ending torn left Achilles), running back LJ Scott (season-ending ankle injury) along with numerous injuries on the offensive line — it’s obvious this offense needs a different look.
Especially when you’ve gone from being 7th in scoring (43 points per game) and 11th in total offensive yards (501 yards per game) in 2014, to 120th (20.3 points per game) and 113th (346 yards per game).
Something needs to change.
Whether it’s from a coaching standpoint, or from junior linebacker Joe Bachie’s perspective: Players making plays.
“You look at the game, and you could point fingers at anyone, but you just point the thumb at yourself for not making the play,” Bachie said. "Maybe in the defense, you bust your coverage, that is not on the coaches. Offensively, if you drop a ball that's not on the coaches. You make those plays that we have all done before. We have all made them before, so there is no pointing fingers here. Own up to it.”