EAST LANSING, Mich. — Brian Lewerke gets points for honesty, even if it’s too late to change the 38-18 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday.
The Michigan State sophomore quarterback could’ve easily said his and his offense’s fumbling issues can and will be quickly fixed. He could have left it at that. But he paused and considered the possibility that it might take more than a week or two. Then he sighed.
“Honestly I’m not sure,” Lewerke said. “Personally for me, I’ve just got to focus on being safer with the ball, not trying to bring it over someone’s head. That’s obviously not a smart decision to do on the fumble. Just making smarter decisions.
“I think we’ll be fine. We’ll be able to bounce back from it.”
So far, the Spartans haven’t been able to do that. They’ve now fumbled 9 times and lost 6 of them. Their 2 lost fumbles per game have them tied for the worst mark in the nation.
They’ve come in all different ways. Two snaps have been mishandled. Lewerke has fumbled 3 times on his own (and lost 1) from being too loose with the ball. Running back LJ Scott has been stripped 3 times and lost them all, including 2 on the goal line. And freshman wide receiver Hunter Rison had the ball ripped right out of his hands. Twice Michigan State’s fumbles have been returned for touchdowns.
Lewerke said the Spartans talk about ball security every day. They work on drills to improve it for seven minutes each practice. But, as Lewerke suggested, it just might not be a quick fix.
“I think we’ve got to change our approach, maybe, because what we’re doing is not working,” co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “We’re doing what we’ve been doing for years and years around here, been very good about protecting the football, but it’s not taking place right now.
“We’ll just evaluate it, look at it and see if there’s new ways to go about emphasizing it. We could not have emphasized it more these last two weeks, but obviously we didn’t get it done.”
The turning point came midway through the second quarter, when Scott appeared to have broken the plane for a 15-yard touchdown, which would have cut the Spartans’ deficit to 21-14. Replay, however, showed that the ball had been popped loose just prior to the goal line. Notre Dame gained possession and scored five plays later.
Scott, a junior, has now fumbled 8 times in his Michigan State career. The latest one resulted in some harsh words from Spartans linebacker and captain Chris Frey.
“I kind of ripped into him a little bit,” Frey said, per MLive. “I told him multiple times, ‘You’ve got to hold on to the ball.’ The kid made a good play on the ball. LJ had time to pick that ball up and still score, and he didn’t do that.”
Lewerke had his troubles as well. On Michigan State’s first drive, he stared down Darrell Stewart and essentially begged Julian Love to jump the route for a pick-6. In the second quarter, he “stupidly” (his words) tried to cut back by lifting the ball over 6-foot-3 lineman Daelin Hayes’ head. Hayes knocked it free and the Irish recovered.
Lewerke has adjustments to make. He can’t do some of the things he likely got away with in high school. Scott, however, has played in 29 college games. If he’s not resolving his ball security issues — and, in fact, they appear to be getting worse — will he ever?
“Nobody feels worse than LJ Scott,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s got opportunities there that stick with him. I’m not going to go over and yell at a guy when he’s trying to make a play. These guys are trying to make plays, so I’m part of that, and I’m not going to be finger-pointing and saying, ‘You do this. You did that.'”
Whether the Frey or Dantonio approach is taken, Scott must make the necessary adjustments. Michigan State looks best with him on the field, so long as he holds onto the ball. Gerald Holmes and Madre London, while clearly talented, don’t have as dynamic a skill set.
One loss doesn’t end a season. As Dantonio put it, “We’re not broken.” But the future of this Michigan State team depends on whether the Spartans can make a quick fix to the turnover problem, or whether it lingers. Lewerke, admittedly, doesn’t know how long it will take.