Brian Lewerke’s 2017 season was one of the best an MSU quarterback has ever had. As one of the most interception-averse quarterbacks in program history with an excellent run game to boot, he was one of seven players named a Heisman dark horse at the beginning of the 2018 season by the Associated Press.
The season he would go on to have in 2018 was … not of Heisman caliber. Or even of starting caliber, really. What happened last year? And which version of Brian Lewerke will we see on the field this year?
To really understand how bad his 2018 year was, let’s compare it to his 2017 season – the one that made him a Heisman dark horse.
Let’s start with looking at Lewerke’s yards per attempt in the two seasons. Yards per attempt — for those unfamiliar with the stat — does a good job measuring how effective a quarterback is by looking at how much yardage his team gains every time he throws the ball, not every time he completes a pass. This takes incompletions into account, an important thing to look at when evaluating a quarterback. After all, it’s harder to score when you aren’t completing passes to move the ball toward the end zone, or when the passes you are completing don’t go very far.
Last season Lewerke’s yards per attempt dropped from 6.7 to 6, which is pretty substantial. Looking at where the drop came from, most of it comes down to a drop in completion percentage – from 59% to 54.3%.
There are other places to look for reasons though, like an increase in checkdown passes. Instead of throwing the ball downfield to his wide receivers, Lewerke spent a lot of time throwing to his running backs. In 2017, running backs caught 37 passes all season. Last year, running back Connor Heyward caught 32 passes on his own, making him MSU’s third leading receiver in terms of receptions. Running backs L.J. Scott and La’Darius Jefferson added 10 and seven receptions, respectively, for a total on the season of 49 receptions for MSU’s running backs.
Now granted, some of those receptions were on passes coming from Lewerke’s backup, Rocky Lombardi. Why was Lombardi throwing passes, you ask?
Right. Brian Lewerke played the second half of this season with an undisclosed shoulder injury that was reportedly causing him pain as he threw. Why was he playing through an injury like this? Your guess is as good as mine. But what is certain is that it hampered his ability to throw the ball downfield, throw the ball accurately and throw the ball generally.
Lewerke injured his shoulder in the game against Penn State Oct. 13, which meant he couldn’t practice Monday through Thursday the following week leading up to the Michigan game.
Lewerke went 5-25 for 66 yards with no picks and no touchdowns. But MSU did score one touchdown on the day on a Wolverines fumble that gave the Spartans first and goal from the seven-yard line. MSU then proceeded to score on … *checks notes* … a passing touchdown by wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr., caught by Brian Lewerke.
Five of 25 isn’t what we had come to expect from Lewerke and, after this game, head coach Mark Dantonio didn’t even know what was happening.
“I don't know whether he was off, dinged up or what,” Dantonio said.
Well, it’s tough to be a quarterback without a working shoulder, but at least he had a good supporting cast around him all season, right?
Even early in the season, before he hurt his own shoulder, Lewerke was playing with the broken remains of an offense.
In just their third game of the season, the Spartans were already down two talented receivers in Cam Chambers and Darrell Stewart Jr. By the time they played Penn State — their fifth game — Chambers had returned, but in addition to missing Stewart Jr., wideout Cody White had broken his hand and talented freshman Jalen Nailor had an unknown injury. On top of all this, star receiver Felton Davis III suffered a mid-game hip injury, but would still return to catch a game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds left.
So as the receiving corps was falling apart, so was the offensive line. By the Penn State game, both of the Spartans’ starting guards had suffered injuries that kept them out for about a month.
Then, Lewerke’s shoulder got hurt.
Now we’re back to the Spartans’ rivalry game against Michigan, and there isn’t a lot to work with. The already-injured-but-still-playing Felton Davis III then tears his Achilles, leaving the MSU offense completely barren.
This left a receiving core featuring three slot receivers — Stewart, Chambers and Sowards — and … *checks notes harder* … a cornerback.
Yes, MSU had to resort to — in multiple games — using Justin Layne as a two-way cornerback-receiver.
We have to move past this U-M game. It hurts to look at it too hard.
After the game against the Wolverines, Lewerke would just start in games against Maryland and Ohio State. Finally, at this point, Lewerke was done for the regular season, with Lombardi taking plenty of snaps to get through the season.
The Spartans then rolled into the Redbox Bowl, with a reportedly slightly healthier Lewerke ready to go.
The Spartans then held Oregon’s 25th ranked offense to seven points and still lost. Lewerke threw for 172 yards and an interception against Oregon with no touchdowns. Speaking of interceptions, let’s look at Lewerke’s numbers in both years.
He threw 11 in 2018 after throwing seven in 2017, but what is really concerning is that he did it in fewer attempts. If we look at his interception rate in both seasons, you can see that it balloons to double what it was the year prior — 3.2% from 1.6%. So, not only was Lewerke less effective at moving the ball for his own team, he was putting the ball into the hands of the other team twice as often.
Remember that yards per attempt stat from earlier? Let’s look at Lewerke’s yards per attempt in every game he played after his injury against Penn State.
As bad as that looks, it gives me hope for how Lewerke will look this year. Let’s look at Lewerke’s pre-injury yards per attempt from last year.
Now, I understand that these defenses are not the same caliber as the ones that gave Lewerke problems later in the year, but the sharp dropoff at the Michigan game makes me think that this is an injury problem, not a Lewerke problem.
Want more proof of this? We can look at Lewerke’s early 2017 numbers in his starts against Bowling Green State and Western Michigan.
If you ask me, the jump from high seven to high eight is even development. In my book, Lewerke didn’t regress as a passer last year, he was developing until his team fell apart with injuries around him, and then he fell apart.
There is one last thing I left out. Lewerke forgot he had legs last year.
I think. That has to be the only explanation for it, because Lewerke only rushed for more than 50 yards in a game once last year, against Oregon for 63. This is a quarterback who rushed for 559 yards the year before only accruing 184 the next year. That is steep.
The only explanation I have for this is that Lewerke was playing with a handicapped offensive line all season, which made it harder to run and made him more vulnerable to sacks, which count against his rushing yards. But I don’t think that should account for 375 missing yards, right?
Football is complicated.