During the 2018 Football season the Michigan State defense finished third in the country in defensive efficiency, behind only Alabama and Clemson. Making it that much harder to swallow the fact that the offense finished No. 95 in the country, and second to last in the Big Ten. It scored just two touchdowns in the final four games of the season, both against Rutgers.
The offense definitely had its woes throughout the season and appeared to get worse as the season progressed. But the tape is clear, the offense wasn’t the same against Oregon as it was against Utah State.
Many people cite injuries as the reason for the scoring struggles since every position group suffered at least one major injury at some point in the season. The major losses include Felton Davis, Cody White and LJ Scott for multiple games. There was a stretch when Davis, White, Darrell Stewart Jr., and Jalen Nailor were all held out with injury.
The most underwhelming part of this offense was the quarterback play. Brian Lewerke, who entered the season with high expectations after a great sophomore season both in the air and on the ground, was at the center of this.
There were concerns early on after ill-timed interceptions became an issue, but the real roadblock came when he sustained an injury to his throwing shoulder on a screen pass in the win against Penn State. It was then decided a week later that he would play after not practicing that week prior to the most anticipated game of the season, Michigan.
It was evident early in the contest that Lewerke wasn’t healthy enough to keep the Spartans in the game. He overthrew open receivers and forced throws after panicking, leading to just 94 yards of total offense in the game, a fireable offense in many programs if done against a rival.
But the next week Lewerke was kept out in favor of backup Rocky Lombardi, who led the Spartans to 318 yards through the air and a win against a Purdue team who came off a blowout win against the Buckeyes. But in the effort came “Rocky” chants, seemingly tossing aside Lewerke for his backup who “saved” the poor offense. This clearly took a toll on Lewerke’s confidence after being pulled the week before.
The QB situation was handled horribly by Dantonio from that point on. He played Lewerke when his shoulder had clearly not fully healed, h his confidence. Lombardi’s confidence suffered when Dantonio did not play him, even though he showed that he was capable until Lewerke was back to full strength. Instead, Dantonio played his injured starter, and Lewerke’s poor performances turned his fan base against him.
What does this have to do with offensive coordinator Dave Warner?
Warner calls the plays. All the things listed above are obstacles Warner had to deal with this season. He did it poorly, simple as that.
As the OC, he is paid to score with whatever offense he is given. Along with the elite defense he was given, even being average would’ve been enough to likely finish the season 9-3, or possibly better.
Some of the blame goes to Dantonio as well. He has kept his offense very conservative and seems to not want to adapt to the changing dynamic of modern l offenses that spread the ball out and opt to not run it down your throat. He stated this year that his goal every game was to run the ball 40 times per game because his record is good when he does.
The record is good when that happens, but it doesn’t happen often enough to maintain that mindset. Look at Clemson and Oklahoma’s offenses. Both finished top five in total offense this year because they spread the ball well and utilized their speed and mobile QB (components the Spartans have at their disposal). College football is unforgiving Mark, adapt or your offense will die.
But Warner has far more critiques, showcasing his incessant need to run it up the middle once every couple plays to try and reach that magical 40 attempts Dantonio said determines victories. The infamous jet sweep to the short side of the field is another. But most of all, not calling plays that cater to the offense’s strengths.
Warner did not have a good offensive line to work with, so he shouldn’t have called plays that required Lewerke to roll out of the pocket without protection. Along with not utilizing his receivers to their full potential. Felton Davis was a legitimate jump ball threat but was rarely hit in the red zone. Jalen Nailor showcased his track speed but was never put in places to use it to his advantage or to gain separation one-on-one.
These are just some of the main examples, but there are many more. Offenses cannot succeed in a Power 5 conference if they try to impose a game plan that they don’t have the personnel for, Michigan State was a prime example of that this year.
The offensive halt late in the season was enough to force the extremely loyal Mark Dantonio to make a switch at OC. On Jan. 10 Dantonio held a surprise press conference to announce that he was shuffling his staff around. He made no firings or hires because he claims he didn’t hire someone who hadn’t yet gained his trust.
So he moved Jim Bollman to the offensive line, Dave Warner back to quarterbacks, where he developed Kirk Cousins and the early career of Connor Cook, and moved Brad Salem to the sole offensive coordinator spot.
Some may be upset that there are no new faces in East Lansing this year after an offensive catastrophe, but Mark Dantonio is loyal to his staff and no one ever expected him to clean house. So, to all of Spartan nation; stay calm, Dantonio will become the winningest coach in MSU football history this year, trust him. He will do whatever it takes to not tear down everything he has built here.