EAST LANSING, Mich. — It was fourth-and-1. Four minutes to go. Michigan State trailed by 3 points. Brian Lewerke received the snap and handed it off to Connor Heyward.
Heyward went nowhere.
And that’s the MSU season in a nutshell.
“This has always gotten to a game of inches,” said MSU coach Mark Dantonio at the post-game press conference following the Spartans’ 29-19 loss to Northwestern. “And it’s second-and-1, third-and-1 and [fourth]-and-1. And we just need a yard.”
Earlier in the year, Akron put up 39 points against this Northwestern defense. Purdue scored 27. But the Spartans could only muster 19. It’s an offense loaded with talented playmakers. But when it came down to making the extra push to the end zone, all bets were off.
“We came into the season with high expectations and with people talking about the potential of this offense, and potential doesn’t mean anything unless you follow through with it and reach that potential,” said MSU co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner after the game. “Obviously, we haven’t.”
It’s hard to point at just one area the Spartan offense struggled in. The rush game was non-existent. Wideout Felton Davis III ran for the most yards with 50, almost entirely from a 48-yard scamper to the end zone.
But the passing game wasn’t stellar either. Lewerke looked uncomfortable in the pocket, and now has one less interception than his total for all of 2017. He did throw for 329 yards, but few of those yards came in the red zone. The Spartans gathered just 13 points from four trips within the 10-yard line.
“It’s not in the yards,” said MSU coach Mark Dantonio after the game. “Sometimes it’s in the production and the points behind it. Get down in the end zone and move down there, you know, you got to get it in. Some of that’s execution, some of it may be play calling.”
As Dantonio touched on, the play calling was a major issue Saturday afternoon. Lewerke’s strength is his ability to get out the pocket and use his feet to make plays both on the ground and in the air. He rarely got the chance. Warner kept him in a perpetually collapsing pocket where he struggled to get off passes.
Furthermore, the calls were predictable. MSU threw it twice as many times as they ran, but it wasn’t hard to guess which plays were going to be rushes. The Spartans stacked the line, often putting Davis—their top receiver—on the bench with either Heyward or La’Darius Jefferson as the lone setback. Everyone in the stadium knew where the ball was going.
Speaking of Davis, one shouldn’t forget his big day in the midst of a struggling offense. He secured seven catches for nearly 100 yards. He had a monster performance. The Wildcats couldn’t do anything to slow him down, except maybe grab him by his hair. But playing from behind the entire fourth quarter, he only had one target for an incompletion. He wasn’t even on the field on fourth-and-1.
To be fair, play calling wasn’t everything. The Spartans’ top two running backs had a combined 27 yards. The game became one-dimensional. Lewerke was stuck improvising in the pocket, protected by a battered offensive line with two top receivers on the sidelines in Cody White and Jalen Nailor. There were a ton of problems, each of which was individually surmountable. When put together, it was just too much.
And yet, this offense still is very good on paper. They have NFL-caliber players. At times, you can see its potential. MSU had 425 total yards—44 more than NW. For at least part of the game, they were finding ways to move the football.
But it was once again key miscues that plagued the Spartans. They made crucial mistakes in three of the four red zone trips. They had an illegal forward lateral, which negated what would’ve been a huge play. And they had a key taunting flag that paved the way for the Wildcats’ go-ahead touchdown. They became their own worst enemy. And that is what’s frustrating about this game.
“Frustrating to say the least,” said Lewerke after the game. “Just not being able to win. It’s one we probably should have.”
The Northwestern loss basically ends any chance of making the College Football Playoff. Winning the Big Ten East and going to Indianapolis, while not impossible, looks highly unlikely. Still, the season is not over and it’s important to remember that. The Spartans are 3-2, not 0-5. Mark Dantonio always says that things could be worse, and 2016 is a constant reminder.
This makes Michigan State’s matchup with Penn State in a week is all the more important. Will the Spartans give up on the season and become a fringe bowl team? Or is this a team that still wins nine or 10 games, playing on New Year’s Day?
The choice is theirs.