Thursday, June 4, 2020

Column: MSU's offensive rout a pleasant surprise; the question becomes consistency

September 9, 2019
<p>Junior wide receiver Cody White (7) celebrates with his teammates after a touchdown against Western Michigan. The Spartans defeated the Broncos, 51-17, on Sept. 7, 2019 at Spartan Stadium.</p>

Junior wide receiver Cody White (7) celebrates with his teammates after a touchdown against Western Michigan. The Spartans defeated the Broncos, 51-17, on Sept. 7, 2019 at Spartan Stadium.

Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

I expected changes and improvement after Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio publicly called out his offense just days before the 18th-ranked Spartans played against Western Michigan. It doesn't take a genius to come up with that conclusion.

But 51 points? Almost 600 yards?

Not many people could see that coming. MSU's offense completely flipped the script against the Broncos, showing that they can score early and often.

So, at least for one week, everyone can take a breath.

Saturday's performance was a major step forward for the offense — and everyone inside of MSU's program knows it, from Mark Dantonio to Offensive Coordinator Brad Salem and Brian Lewerke to the offensive line.

But the next step is to keep it rolling.

“I've been kind of tired of being in the offense that sucks, and I’m trying to win some more games and to be good, and we took a good step tonight,” Lewerke said, following the win.

Sophomore receiver CJ Hayes said that the offensive players really took Dantonio's message to heart. The tone behind his voice suggested he was serious, and the players believed that too.

“Really, even after he gave us that talk, it was like, 'Alright, this is for real,'" Hayes said. "So, we have to do what he is saying, prove to him and prove to everyone else that we can do the things that we did tonight.” 

There was a sense of determination with MSU's offensive unit against the Broncos. They played with a chip on their shoulder and were out to prove many people wrong — myself included.

You could see through the manner in which they conducted themselves and hear in the sound of their voice the pride that they played with Saturday night.

Lewerke said that at one point, offensive lineman Blake Bueter came up to him on the sideline and said that it finally felt good to smash someone else in the mouth. It's been a while since MSU's offense could say that about an opposing defense.

The things that MSU did offensively against WMU came with some changes. Lewerke was more sharp throwing downfield. The offensive line gave him ample time in the pocket to pick apart the Broncos' secondary., and they provided tons of running lanes to MSU's new starting running back, Elijah Collins.

It doesn't take much dissection to see that change and how its success helped the offense improve. Collins provided a spark in MSU's backfield that it hadn't seen since Nov. 3 last year when Connor Heyward ran for 157 yards against Maryland, the last time a Spartan back topped the century mark.

The redshirt freshman's speed, cut-back ability and vision consistently helped MSU's offense set up in favorable positions.

"It changes everything," Lewerke said. "It's the first time we’ve had that in a while I would say. Elijah [Collins] made a lot of plays. He made a lot of guys miss tackles and broke a lot of long runs. I think that was very good for our offense.” 

He can't regress either, at the risk of MSU's offense becoming one dimensional — or at some points non-dimensional. That's a lot to ask from a player that just made his first-career start. But if Saturday night showed us anything about Collins, it showed he is ready to be "the guy" in the backfield for the Spartans.

Last week I said that, for MSU to have a successful season, the offense just had to be respectable. They were more than that against WMU. Offensive Coordinator Brad Salem mixed in a good combination of runs, passes, RPO's and even a trick-play where wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. threw to Lewerke on double-reverse. For most of the night, the Spartans were unpredictable. That's an advantage they failed to have last season.

MSU's next challenges comes Saturday when it hosts Arizona State (4:00 p.m., FOX). The Spartans don't have to hang another 50 points to prove their offensive progress, but they can't score 13 points like they did a season ago in the sweltering Arizona heat.

There is a middle-ground where the Spartans can stay competent and aggressive offensively and still win games. With the defense that MSU will run out on the field, 30 points will suffice against many of the opponents on the Spartans' schedule. That's all it takes for the Spartans to turn a seven-win season into double digits — and perhaps another trip to Indianapolis.

As many Big Ten teams struggled to find an offensive identity on Saturday, the Spartans took a step forward.

They can't afford to take a step back.

"I saw what they did on the field ... but it's all about consistency and performance, it really is," Mark Dantonio said. "You've got to stack that next week, and you have to continue to do that. Then I think you get more confident, and you're more sure of yourself. Good things happen when those things occur."

"This is a long season. We're 2-0, and like I said, that's the most important thing to me. A lot of happy people in that locker room and a lot of people that feel like they had some resolve.”

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