EAST LANSING, Mich. — You won’t hear the Michigan State defense complaining about the offense anytime soon.
The Spartans were last shut out in the 2016 College Football Playoff semifinals against eventual national champion Alabama. A shutout hasn’t happened in the regular season since 2000 against Michigan. As long as Spartans’ offense puts something on the board, the members of the defense say it should be enough.
“We always say on defense if we don’t let them score at all, then we’ll win the game,” said safety David Dowell, who intercepted 2 passes in Michigan State’s 14-10 win over Michigan last Saturday. “We don’t really worry about that. As a defense, we worry about going out and stopping them from scoring. That’s all we really can control, and that’s all we worry about. The rest will take care of itself.”
The offense, though, must bear a bit more responsibility. How long can this lack of offensive output sustain the Spartans? Only two games between Big Ten opponents so far in the 2017 season have been won by a team scoring fewer than 20 points. Both times, it’s been Michigan State.
Certainly, the strategy against Michigan had a lot to do with the torrential downpour that started early in the second half. Holding a 14-10 lead, the Spartans opted to avoid turnovers, run the ball and keep the Wolverines out of scoring position.
“[Jake] Hartbarger punted well, but we punted a lot,” Coach Mark Dantonio said on his Sunday teleconference. “But we played the field position game and defensively we played well enough to keep everything sort of at bay. And they also punted a lot. Just by the nature of the game, the way it all shook out, that’s how we planned on playing it and that’s what happened.”
But the game shook out in a similar way to Michigan State’s 17-10 win the week before against Iowa. The Spartans scored two first-quarter touchdowns, and then after that, they averaged 24 yards per drive and depended on their defense to stave off the Hawkeyes. When they did get in scoring position, they missed a field goal or pushed themselves back out of position via penalties.
Statistically, Michigan State’s running game has been solid, ranking fifth in the Big Ten with 181.6 yards per game. But quarterback Brian Lewerke leads the way with 309 yards rushing yards on the season, and the supposed “three-headed monster” of veteran running backs LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London has averaged 100.2 yards per game. No one has individually mustered a 100-yard performance yet.
“Establishing the running game a little more as a team would be good,” Lewerke said. “Obviously, I like to run; I don’t like being the leading rusher every time. I will, if necessary, but it would be good if we got our running game going a little bit.”
Michigan State has gotten back to much of what has made it successful in past seasons under Dantonio: a tough secondary, an aggressive pass rush, a healthy turnover margin (at least in the last two games), but not yet a consistent, bruising running game.
The Spartans’ defense has been fantastic, but it only can maintain this pace for so long. At some point, the offense will have to be the side that wins a game. It can take some pressure off by holding onto the ball longer per possession and protecting the ball, but ultimately there’s only one thing that will relieve pressure.
“I’m not sure if there is anything else besides scoring,” Lewerke said. “I think that’s the main thing, being able to move the ball, maybe get them a little bit of a break, not have as many three-and-outs as we had, get long drives where the defense can get some time to rest and think, and then obviously scoring on the end of that would be big.”