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Column: To be consistent, the Michigan State offense needs to find its identity

December 14, 2020
<p>Cornerback Keaton Ellis (2) brings down Michigan State running back Jordon Simmons (22) during Penn State football’s game against MSU on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Beaver Stadium. Penn State won 39-24. Photos courtesy of Lily LaRegina, photographer and photo editor at The Daily Collegian.</p>

Cornerback Keaton Ellis (2) brings down Michigan State running back Jordon Simmons (22) during Penn State football’s game against MSU on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Beaver Stadium. Penn State won 39-24. Photos courtesy of Lily LaRegina, photographer and photo editor at The Daily Collegian.

Little did I know when I wrote about Michigan State’s offensive performance against Rutgers being a “roller coaster” effort, how accurate that would end up being later.

The week after Rutgers, the Spartans and quarterback Rocky Lombardi torched the Michigan secondary through the air with the deep ball only to follow that with just seven total points against Iowa and Indiana combined in the weeks that followed.

Then Lombardi was able to strike once again against a stout Northwestern defense with a balanced attack on offense, supplemented by a strong day on the ground from Connor Heyward. Only to follow that with a 12-point performance against the Buckeyes where Payton Thorne stepped in due to Lombardi’s injury.

To start their matchup against Penn State, Thorne led the offense to an incredibly successful start with 21 points in the first half, a season high in a half. As their talented wide receiver group made plays, running back Jordon Simmons emerged through holes created by the offensive line for solid yardage on early downs.

That all disappeared in the second half as the Spartans were outscored 29-3 to end the game.

“It was absolutely execution,” Tucker said. “From our stand standpoint, I think that they (Penn State's defense) were maybe a little more aggressive but there's plays we made and we still made plays in the second half, we just weren't able to make them on a consistent basis.”

Each time the Spartans have had success offensively, it’s been in a different fashion. Looking at Michigan, it was the deep ball, and at Northwestern the run game made the difference. Against Penn State in the first half, the run game put Michigan State in second or third and short situations where Thorne could pick apart the Nittany Lions' secondary underneath and not be tied to going deep to move down the field.

Game plans vary and things sometimes work better than others when playing. The problem is, the Spartans on offense haven’t been able to do one thing consistently from game to game.

As Tucker said, that isn’t an effort problem when players like Thorne continue to fight when down by multiple scores.

“The motivation, the drive, the determination and the grit is there,” Tucker said. “Those things are what's going to get our program turned in the direction it needs to go. We are trying to turn our program.”

Truthfully, the problem with the Michigan State offense isn’t that the team is giving up or that their game plans have failed, but it is the fact this offense still lacks a true identity.

Tucker has preached since day one at Michigan State that they want to play smart, complementary football. Then in the same hand, the Spartans find a way to turn the ball over seven times to Rutgers in the home opener.

His emphasis has been placed on the run game, but outside of an OK performance against Penn State and a stellar one against Northwestern, the run game hasn’t had much success elsewhere.

Coaches and players said since the Michigan game that the deep ball is a key part of the offense, then they’ll go two weeks without scoring more than seven points.

The inconsistency of putting together a solid performance week to week rests on the fact that this offense still does not have an identity and they lack that thing that they do well on a game-by-game basis.

The success of the few years during the Mark Dantonio era when they were making Rose Bowls and playoffs was because that team, no matter if the running back was Jeremy Langford or LJ Scott, was able to run the ball on every down. The offensive line was able to create holes for the running backs and give time for Kirk Cousins or Connor Cook in the pocket.

In every game they played, the Spartans ran the ball and opened up opportunities in the play action to move the ball downfield. Each time they took the field, they felt like they could score.

When is the last time this team had that feeling?

During the first half after the third consecutive score, that was the first sign of something more. As Thorne bounced back from an interception early and created a rhythm with his wide receivers, it started to feel like they were unstoppable.

That stretch of play and games like Michigan and Northwestern are proof that the players there can do what they need to do to be successful when they are on their game. While the roster needs to improve as Tucker has repeated multiple times, that’s not the entire problem.

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Going into next season, the key for Michigan State’s success on the offensive side of the ball is to find that thing that they can do well on a game-by-game basis to establish a foundation on offense. With that, the offense can feel more confident each time they step on the field.

The potential is there. The Spartans need to establish their identity, whatever they decide that might be.

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