EAST LANSING, Mich. – Brian Lewerke has done something the last two weeks that hasn’t been seen around Michigan State in 12 years.
Lewerke is the first freshman, true or redshirt, to start a game for Michigan State since 2004, when Stephen Reaves started twice while Drew Stanton was dealing with injuries. Reaves left the program the following year, transferring to Southern Mississippi. Lewerke hopes his career with the Spartans has more sustainability.
In a season in which Michigan State is plugging holes throughout its lineup, quarterback play hasn’t been its biggest concern. That’s not to say that getting consistent, good play hasn’t been an issue. For the last two games, against Northwestern and at Maryland, Lewerke has gotten the starting nod over fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor and redshirt junior Damion Terry.
Is this the start of the next quarterbacking era for Michigan State or has the next Brian Hoyer/Kirk Cousins/Connor Cook yet to be seen?
Lewerke has completed 23 of 43 passes for 255 yards, one touchdown and one interception in his two starts. He made his college debut in mop-up duty against Wisconsin on Sept. 24.
Brian Lewerke is the first freshman to start a game at quarterback under Mark Dantonio. He’s started the last two and is in the mix to make it three in row this week against No. 2-ranked Michigan at home. Here’s how other quarterbacks in the Dantonio era fared in their first three starts compared to Lewerke in his first two starts.
|Quarterback (Class)||Season||Att-Comp||Yards||TD||INT||Team record|
|Brian Hoyer (RS JR)||2007||45-74||634||3||2||3-0|
|Kirk Cousins (RS Soph)||2009||46-70||649||5||1||1-2|
|Andrew Maxwell (RS JR)||2012||65-114||710||2||3||2-1|
|Connor Cook (RS Soph)||2013||37-65||369||5||0||2-1|
|Tyler O’Connor (RS SR)||2016||50-80||655||5||5||2-1|
|Brian Lewerke (RS FR)||2016||23-43||255||1||1||0-2|
Whether or not Lewerke gets a third straight start this Saturday against No. 2-ranked Michigan won’t be known until game time. Head coach Mark Dantonio has held his answer until kickoff the last two games and said this week it would likely be the same against Michigan. It’s part gamesmanship – why tip your hand to your opponent if you don’t have to? – but the health of O’Connor, who was seen wearing a walking boot on his left foot last week and didn’t play against Maryland, is also in question.
Michigan poses more of a challenge defensively than any other team Michigan State has faced this season, including Wisconsin. The Wolverines are ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense, total defense, passing defense and third-down conversions allowed. Michigan’s run defense is the best in the Big Ten and ranked No. 4 nationally. They are going to give any quarterback and offense trouble, let alone a redshirt freshman.
“They’ve been tough to run the ball on, and they were rough to run the ball on last year as well,” Dantonio said. “So we need to be able to run the football with some effectiveness and throw it, and productivity, again, which they’ve been difficult to score against – they’ve got a good defense. They’ve got a good football team. The challenge is there, there’s no question about that.”
Dantonio hasn’t made his quarterbacks available to the media during the week for the past three weeks, ever since he replaced O’Connor with Terry in the fourth quarter against Brigham Young on Oct. 8. O’Connor relieved Lewerke in the third quarter against Northwestern and threw three touchdowns in the 54-40 loss.
Northwestern began mixing up its defenses and confusing Lewerke after he had a solid first quarter. He played the whole game at Maryland. The Spartans led 17-14 at the end of the third quarter but it could have been a bigger lead if not for a couple of mistakes in the red zone. Fifth-year senior Monty Madaris fumbled the ball away inside the 5-yard line on the first possession of the second half. The Spartans had to settle for a field goal on their next drive when Lewerke missed a wide-open Donnie Corley on a third-down play.
“Probably when we were down driving on the 15-yard line,” said Lewerke afterward when asked if there was one throw he’d like to have back. “Donnie ran a slant and I threw it right at his feet. That would have been a walk-in touchdown right there and put us up by a touchdown. That’s one play I wish I had back.”
It’s the hard part of the developmental process. Lewerke showed improvement from the Northwestern game to Maryland. Having a running game that produced 270 yards and both touchdowns against Maryland helped and will be a vital commodity against Michigan.
“There has to be a constant threat of balance,” said co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman. “Maybe as a game evolves you don’t use one as much as the other, but hopefully you’re competent at both. If you’re not then it makes it more difficult.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo