Pound Green Pound Must Make Strides

Pound Green Pound Must Make Strides

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Pound Green Pound Must Make Strides

Michigan State’s beefeaters up front must create more room for LJ, protect Lewerke, and assert themselves far more aggressively.

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WHAT DID WE SAY WOULD HAPPEN?

In our previews prior to Michigan State’s season opening 38-31 win over Utah State, we suggested that the Spartans would place a heavy emphasis on establishing a powerful ground game against the Aggies.

We predicted that Michigan State would find a way to overpower Utah State’s defensive front (a front that finished 9th in the Mountain West in 2017 by giving up 217 yards per game on the ground) and reach close to 250 yards rushing on the night.

We predicted that LJ Scott would gain 175 yards on the ground.

WHAT HAPPENED?

The Michigan State offense struggled to get rhythm going with the running game going for much of the night against Utah State.

At halftime, the Spartans had a disappointing – and ugly – 36 yards on the ground.

The offensive line – which played all night without left tackle Cole Chewins who did not dress for the game for undisclosed reasons – didn’t assert itself in the way we thought it would.

As we pointed out prior to the game, Michigan State has been notorious for fairly sloppy season opening games under Mark Dantonio, despite now having a mark of 11-1 in openers during the Dantonio Era.

Closer-than-expected early season wins over Western Michigan (twice), Furman, South Florida, Bowling Green – those games all had similar looks and feels to the one Michigan State won on Friday night.

And while there are a couple of mistakes Spartan fans can point to that are easily correctable and should be cause for zero concern (Brian Lewerke won’t throw another pick-six for the remainder of the season), it’s the ground game that must be improved quickly if Michigan State wants to truly compete for the Big Ten Championship.

NO REASON TO PANIC

Before everyone panics, however, let’s recognize that Michigan State found a way to move the ball more than it might have seemed, particularly in the second half.

The Spartans managed to end the night with 165 yards on the ground – 134 of those yards coming in the second half.

Michigan State averaged 167 yards on the ground in 2017.

On Friday night, Michigan State averaged 3.9 yards per carry – again, against a defensive front that, at least last season, wasn’t strong.

That average-yards-per-rush number has to go up.

But LJ Scott did end the night with a decent 84 yards on 23 carries after a rough start in the first half that featured a disappointing 23 yards on nine carries.

LJ’s 32 yard gainer on a screen pass that helped set up Michigan State’s second touchdown was a thing of beauty – the toss from Lewerke, the way LJ nestled the ball in, the way LJ practically stood still and admired the way the grass had been mowed on the field while he brilliantly and patiently waited for the blocking to develop, and the way LJ made his way down the field might all have contributed to one of the most encouraging moments of the night.

That play wasn’t a run, per se – but the work done there by LJ and the line demonstrated that this bunch can point to some moments from this game that can be built upon.

But, 165 yards against these Aggies – reminder, 9th place in rushing defense against the run in the Mountain West last season – isn’t going to cut it.

BUT IS THERE REASON FOR CONCERN?

At this point, it’s not anything to lie awake and fret over.

The offensive line, perhaps more than any other unit on a college football team, takes time to gel and find its rhythm.

Michigan State’s offensive line still has plenty of potential.

The four returning starters didn’t become crummy over the last week or so.

And as we said in the run-up to the season, this line doesn’t have to pave the way for the nation’s #1 rushing attack.

This offense has plenty of weapons – and, back in the early part of preseason camp, we said that if Michigan State could find a way to have a ground game that could finish in the Top 5 of the Big Ten, that’d be reason for all Spartans to be thrilled.

A Top 5 rushing attack in the Big Ten is still very much an attainable goal.

NEWEST WEAPON HAS ARRIVED

There was another bright spot in the running game – Connor Heyward.

Heyward looked strong and quick out there.

He appeared confident and ready to both spell LJ throughout the season and be more than capable as a featured back, if that became a necessity.

He ran the ball five times and gained 42 yards – he and Lewerke appeared to be particularly in sync on the option that wound up delivering the game winning touchdown when Heyward took the perfect pitch and bowling-balled his way into the endzone for his second score of the night.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT LEWERKE

And, of course, let’s not forget about the way Lewerke can run.

He had a run of 27 yards early in the third quarter that reminded us – almost at a point in the game when we might have forgotten – how dangerous he is when the pocket collapses on him.

That run was a key play on a drive that ended with a 17-yard touchdown run by Connor Heyward.

Lewerke’s legs are still a major weapon for this team and will contribute to a rushing game that will outperform Friday night’s showing over the course of the season.

CHEWINS WILL BE BACK, LINE WILL ASSERT ITSELF

Chewins will, presumably, be back at left tackle for the game this Saturday night against Arizona State.

Michigan State needs him.

Matt Allen also got more than just a few reps in there at center, too.

Dantonio and Mark Staten have played around with offensive line combinations all season long for years – and this year should be no different.

While the offensive line didn’t assert itself enough to allow LJ and Heyward to pile up overpowering yards all night, the line didn’t protect Lewerke as much as needed, leading to three sacks given up.

A positive?

Lewerke is a good enough playmaker to evade pressure and turn what would otherwise be drive-killing plays into big gainers with what seems to be an even quicker ability to break free and burst loose.

WHAT MATTERS?

On a night that seemed as if the rushing game was practically nonexistent, the stats show that Michigan State at least met its 2017 average with 165 yards on the night.

The line is still the same line we’ve been bullish on ever since Spring Ball.

Staten and Dantonio will examine the film, focus on the mechanics and strategies that worked and the ones that didn’t against Utah State.

With a team that will be motivated to show that the sluggish overall performance against Utah State was merely opening game sloppiness, look for the Spartan offensive line to pave the way for close to 200 yards against an Arizona State defense that gave up 175 yards rushing per game in 2017.

It’s okay to still be bullish on the Spartan ground game, folks.

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