Michigan State nearly fell at the hands of Utah State, winning 38-31 during Friday’s home opener. A fourth-quarter comeback and a Joe Bachie deflection and interception sealed a win for the Spartans that wasn’t a sure thing – even for the 23.5-point favorites heading into play. A one-point game with five minutes remaining unveiled an MSU offense that wasn’t ready to lose its first game, but there’s more to unravel than just the final few minutes of the contest.
Brian Lewerke’s not perfect – yet.
Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke went 23-for-33, tossing 287 yards, two touchdowns, a fumble and an interception against the Aggies. He drove the MSU offense down the field during the game-winning drive that was eventually capped off by Connor Heyward’s 13-yard run. He also provided the dagger – a 2-point conversion to Felton Davis making it a seven-point lead. Despite his play late, Lewerke was far from perfect.
Down by seven early in the second quarter, Lewerke fumbled, allowing opposing defensive end Devon Anderson to recover. While still early in the game, it seemed to be a just another thing gone wrong for the Spartans offense. Fortunately for the Green and White, the Aggies failed to capitalize. In a more crucial part of the contest, Utah State’s Gaje Ferguson jumped a pass from Lewerke and returned it for a touchdown, making it a three-point game heading into the fourth quarter.
On multiple occasions, Lewerke missed the deep ball – a weakness that’s been noted well throughout the offseason. During the opening drive, he underthrew Cody White. They settled for a 30-yard reception, but a better pass completes a touchdown. The drive ended in a field goal by Matt Coghlin but could’ve knotted the game at seven.
Sophomore Matt Dotson and Lewerke looked out of sorts on Dotson’s only target of the evening. Dotson created separation and was destined for an extra few yards after the catch, but Lewerke completely missed the tight end.
Quarterbacks and receivers will get mixed up early in the season. It’s bound to happen. But some of the passes, turnovers and decisions Lewerke made show he’s got a ton of work to do. The Arizona native is on the Maxwell and Davey O’Brien award watchlist. Some argued for more attention for the junior and wanted Heisman recognition. While he’s more than capable of putting up big numbers, the dual-threat quarterback will have to wait another week to showcase he’s proven for the big moment. That big moment may come as soon as next week. Arizona State isn’t a playoff contender, nor are they destined for a great season, but they’ll surely play hard under new head coach Herm Edwards. The scorching heat has also been part of the conversation and how the Spartans will face the desert-like temps.
MSU defensive strengths may be one-sided
The Aggies posted 31 points on 344 total yards. 319 of those yards were through the air and in part to Aggies quarterback Jordan Love and his impressive performance. The remaining 25 came on the ground. Michigan State’s run defense a year ago was second-best to Alabama. Allowing only 25 against Utah State, they look to be on a similar path. However, the secondary needs some fine-tuning. 10 different Aggies hauled in at least one reception. Dax Raymond and Jordan Nathan were the front runners, totaling a combined 140 yards.
The MSU secondary was expected to be one of the staples of this Spartan defense. With so many experienced weapons to protect against the pass, the hosts failed to do so Friday night. Give credit to Utah State, though. They ran an up-tempo offense that troubled both players and coaches. It took a while to adjust to the fast pace of play, and the Aggies eventually did slow things down, but they did have some problems as it puzzled MSU momentarily.
There were some hiccups defending the passing game, but two MSU captains and Kenny Willekes were the difference in the win. Willekes had a stretch in the third quarter where he disrupted a pass intended for Thompkins, and sacked Love two plays later for a 15-yard loss – Love fumbled the ball but quickly recovered. The junior tallied six tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss, making his presence felt throughout the entire game.
The two captains performed as expected. Bachie was good for 11 tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception. Khari Willis picked off a pass himself, totaling seven tackles. If there’s a bright spot for the MSU defense other than restricting the Aggie run game, it’s knowing the two captains didn’t miss a beat and led the defense – exactly what Mark Dantonio had in mind when appointing the two with the captain tag.
Love posed a problem for the MSU defense, but there are still better quarterbacks remaining on the Spartans’ schedule. Since the run game seems to be in check, they’ll need to see vast improvement in week two against the pass.
The offense needs to capitalize at the goal line
Red zone efficiency was shaky for parts of the game. Having the football spotted near the end zone didn’t result in touchdowns, leading the Spartans to settle for Coghlin field goals. In a game like last night, these points are far too valuable to leave on the table.
A sack and a false start in the first quarter stopped MSU from crossing into the end zone. The ball was spotted on Utah State’s 1-yard line, but the self-induced error and an offensive line mishap caused the Spartans to come away with just three points.
In the fourth, an illegal formation penalty cost the Spartans five yards and pushed them back from Utah State’s 1-yard line to the 6-yard line. After a Lewerke incomplete pass, Coghlin was called upon yet again to extend the lead.
To have the ball spotted on your opponent’s 1-yard line multiple times and come away with a combined six points doesn’t prove the offense is back to 2014 form – a form Dantonio and Felton Davis have talked about getting the offense back to. A tightly-contested match will have this look much worse, but with a veteran offense, points need to be scored when just a few feet from paydirt.
These mistakes and bad habits can be attributed to opening-game jitters. It’s tough for any football team across any league to be perfect on day one. But, fans and coaches hold this team to a much different standard – and rightfully so. This is an experienced group; they preach comradery and togetherness. Many stages of the game – especially the final few minutes – showed the guys pulling their own weight, together, to achieve their ultimate goal – a win. Other parts of the opener showed this team needs time to iron out some wrinkles. Lucky for them, they have another handful of games before they’re really put into grueling challenges (though, one can argue this game qualifies as a grueling challenge in its own right). Dantonio and his team will need to address things rapidly if they want to avoid another non-conference scare in Tempe.