EAST LANSING, Mich. – Change is hard but sometimes it’s necessary. When you’ve lost four games in row, that’s a good sign that something has to change.
For Michigan State, how it approaches the offensive game plan is a good place to start.
Mark Dantonio’s offensive philosophy as a head coach has and always will be run-first but everyone knows this and they’re doing a good job of stopping that game plan before it gets going. There are plenty of starting pitchers in Major League Baseball who can throw their fastballs 96 mph or faster. The really good ones have a change-up to go along with the heater.
Michigan State’s offense needs a change-up because everyone is sitting dead red on the run game.
MLive.com photographer Mike Mulholland overheard a Brigham Young assistant coach say as much moments after the Cougars had finished off a 31-14 win at Spartan Stadium two weeks ago.
BYU assistant coach as he walks off the field: “the didn’t do a single thing we didn’t plan for.”
— Mike Mulholland (@mulho2mj) October 8, 2016
Michigan State opened that game by having senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor throw four straight times. O’Connor threw on five of the first six plays and eight of the first 10 plays, completing six of them for 46 yards, before Gerald Holmes and the run game finished off the final 23 yards of the drive over the next five plays with a touchdown that gave the Spartans a 7-0 lead.
O’Connor would attempt just one more pass in the first half and was eventually pulled from the game in favor of junior Damion Terry in the fourth quarter with the Spartans trailing 17-7. Terry completed his first couple of passes and picked up a couple of first downs before throwing an interception on his first drive. He led the offense on a touchdown drive his second possession.
Offensive coordinator Dave Warner utilized a two-minute offense at that time. Yes, game situations dictated the up-tempo style but it was effective.
Redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke had similar early success throwing the ball when he started last Saturday against Northwestern. He perfectly placed a pass to wide receiver R.J. Shelton for a 33-yard gain on the opening drive of the game and his 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josiah Price on the second possession was on the money off a play-action fake.
O’Connor relieved Lewerke in the third quarter, again with the team trailing by double digits. O’Connor and Shelton hooked up for a pair of deep passes that went for touchdowns and pulled the Spartans back into the game.
Again, yes, game circumstances dictated changing up the game plan. So, why not try it sooner this Saturday at Maryland?
“I think it’s hyperbole. There are always wrinkles,” Dantonio said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “I guess we could say we run the triple option, maybe Maryland will get ready for that, OK? But you just can’t change and overhaul something that you’ve done, especially if you’ve been good at it.”
The triple-option would be more of an eephus pitch than change-up. Continuing to do something you’ve been good at is all well and good when you’re being productive at that thing but when you’re not it’s time to look at alternatives.
Change of pace
Michigan State has always been a run-first offense under Dantonio but the Spartans rank last in the Big Ten in rushing this season, averaging just 136.2 yards per game. The passing offense ranks No. 3 in the conference with 248.2 yards per game. It may be time to change the offensive philosophy to get back on the winning track. Here’s the breakdown of rushing and passing yards, by half, in the last four games.
|Opponent||Run 1st half||TD||Pass 1st half||TD-INT||Run 2nd half||TD||Pass 2nd half||TD-INT|
|Wisconsin||13-64||0||7-18, 57 yards||0-1||14-50||0||13-25, 193 yards||0-2|
|@Indiana||18-84||0||9-20, 147 yards||1-0||23-91||0||12-15, 116 yards||2-0|
|BYU||17-59||1||6-9, 46 yards||0-0||15-26||1||7-12, 75 yards||0-1|
|Northwestern||15-68||0||8-14, 79 yards||1-0||8-(-17)||0||19-28, 345 yards||3-1|
Maryland’s pass defense is ranked fifth in the Big Ten, allowing 176.5 yards per game, but the Terrapins haven’t faced any top passing attacks and their run defense has been awful the last two games; Penn State and Minnesota rushed for a combined 601 yards. They’re going to be primed to stop Michigan State’s running back trio of LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London.
So give Maryland the change-up.
Whether Lewerke starts for a second straight week, or if O’Connor returns to the starting lineup or if Terry gets his chance, let the passing game dictate the play-calling this week. Don’t do it to exclude the run game. Do it to open the run game up. And, if all goes well, Warner can call all of the run plays he wants in the fourth quarter as Michigan State runs out the clock on its first win in more than a month.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo