Chris Solari Detroit Free Press
Published 6:02 AM EDT Oct 16, 2018
EAST LANSING — Mark Dantonio and his assistants were frustrated.
The Michigan State football coaches had watched the Spartans fizzle in the fourth quarter against Northwestern, and they wanted to know why it kept happening.
“We’re constantly looking for answers, that’s for sure,” Dantonio said of his offensive line, after the 29-19 loss to Northwestern on Oct. 6.
Then, three days later, the questions continued.
“We’ve got to find a way to run the football,” he said. “I don’t think that’s earth shattering. I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag there, am I?”
Perhaps Dantonio was bluffing in that moment, with all of his allusions to poker and chips and going all-in. Because on Saturday against Penn State, the Spartans found the formula.
To run the ball. To score touchdowns. To get their defense off the field quickly.
So what changed?
Three things happened differently against the Nittany Lions:
1. Running the ball
Let’s start with Dantonio last Tuesday, trumpeting his program’s success when running the ball 40 or more times a game. That irked many fans who wanted to watch quarterback Brian Lewerke throw the ball more than he already had been.
It was an important moment, planting the seeds to Penn State that the Spartans might rely on the run despite injuries along the offensive line, and potentially without LJ Scott at running back.
That’s what happened against Northwestern
Trailing by a field goal going into the final quarter, MSU’s running backs struggled to find room between the tackles. The Spartans’ three rushing attempts in the fourth quarter produced 1 yard — Lewerke’s run for 5 yards, a sack for minus-4 and Connor Heyward’s failed fourth-down run for no gain. MSU couldn’t pick up 1 yard on the ground and turned the ball over on one drive, then never called a run play in the final minute after getting to the Wildcats’ 6-yard line.
On Saturday, at Penn State, after falling behind by three points midway through the final quarter, MSU did not abandon the run. Much of that was due to the change in blocking philosophy.
MSU ran the ball 36 times for 123 yards against the Nittany Lions, after coaches altered the Spartans’ blocking scheme from their traditional man/power game to a zone scheme.
The difference? Without Scott again, MSU’s change allowed inexperienced running backs to read and react to seeing a crease in zone blocking as the line worked to get the defense moving in a particular direction.
In the Spartans’ usual man-blocking system, running backs must run toward a predetermined area and rely on linemen to create a hole there.
La’Darius Jefferson was able to burst through the line Saturday and bounce outside right for 27 yards, showingmore cohesion between himself and the line.
That set up a failed fake field goal, but it also gave Penn State a reason to stay honest against the run in the final few minutes, opening up the passing game.
2. Featuring Felton
Davis made the biggest play of the game with his 25-yard touchdown catch from Lewerke with 19 seconds left.
Even before that final drive, it was clear Dantonio and co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner would make sure their senior standout would not be a forgotten man in the passing game.
Against Northwestern, Davis scored a touchdown rushing and another on a well-thrown corner route that gave MSU a third-quarter lead.
But Lewerke targeted Davis one time in the fourth quarter — on a desperation fourth-and-goal play. Davis had seven catches for 97 yards in the game.
On Saturday at Beaver Stadium, the Spartans’ receiving corps continued to thin as the game went along. Cam Chambers hurt his thumb. Brandon Sowards got dinged up on a punt return. That was on top of Darrell Stewart Jr., Cody White and Jalen Nailor being out with various injuries.
Lewerke targeted Davis six times in the first half against Penn State, with the receiver turning one 5-yard out route into a 12-yard gain and the other five falling incomplete.
In the second half, their connection clicked.
Davis caught seven passes in the final two quarters, including a 20-yard touchdown to tie the game in the third quarter as MSU began exploiting a mismatch against 6-1 Nittany Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye.
Then came the fourth quarter. Lewerke threw Davis’ direction eight times, completing half of those passes. That drew more attention outside and allowed Lewerke to connect twice over the middle to Laress Nelson out of the slot.
Davis and Nelson got hurt on back-to-back plays in the final 38 seconds. Both returned and were on the field when Lewerke again went to Davis deep down the left side. The receiver used his body to seal off Oruwariye for the back-shoulder pass, then swiveled into the end zone for the winning score.
Davis finished with eight catches for 100 yards and two TDs. He was targeted 18 times.
3. Defense holds
A week earlier, Dantonio and Warner opted to go for a fourth-and-1 play at MSU’s 11-yard line. There was a little more than three minutes left with that decision, after the Spartans’ defense had forced Northwestern to punt. They were back on the field less than a minute later after the failed offensive drive, and gave up a touchdown a few plays later.
Against Penn State, Dantonio continued to rely on his defense. It responded with multiple stops this time.
After the fake field goal pass to Raequan Williams was broken up with 5:19 to play, the Spartans gave up a quick first down, then shut down the Nittany Lions’ next three plays to force a punt.
MSU’s offense sputtered again, with Lewerke taking a sack at the MSU 35-yard line. This time, with just under two minutes remaining, Dantonio decided to punt and use his three timeouts.
His defense responded by spying Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley twice as he tried to run.
On first down, Williams teamed up with linebacker Andrew Dowell to wrangle McSorley to the ground on an option keeper.
The line bottled up running back Miles Sanders for a 1-yard loss on second down.
On third down, McSorley appeared to have a path to a first down after weaving through traffic and bouncing toward the right sideline. But MSU cornerback Justin Layne shed the block of Penn State’s Juwan Johnson to lower a shoulder into McSorley, and with the help of safety Matt Morrissey, sent the QB out of bounds.
That saved MSU’s last timeout for the final drive.
And it saved the Spartans from watching Penn State QB take a knee to run out the clock like Northwestern did a week earlier.
MSU stock watch: Offensive line thrives with changes
Solari: Spartans must move on from PSU win to focus on U-M
Dantonio: Michigan State ready to build off upset of PSU
Contact Chris Solari: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari.
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