Let me preface this by saying that I fully believe that Dave Warner, who has been the offensive coordinator for the Michigan State Spartans’ football program since the 2013 season, is capable of generating significant production out of his offense. He has proven this in the past, most notably in the 2014 season – the second in his current role – when they averaged 500 yards per game.
For all the good we’ve seen out of the Michigan State offense under Coach Warner, it seems there are equally as many instances that make us question him. Last weekend’s game against Northwestern was a perfect example of this. As the game played out, there were positives and negatives that ultimately comprised a microcosm of Warner’s tenure as a whole.
The end-of-game stats indicate an impressive offensive performance, which, at times, it was. But they don’t tell the whole story. The first quarter was exciting, sexy even, with dynamic, young players displaying all the promise and ability that they have to offer. Ultimately ending in a touchdown reception by freshman Cody White from Brian Lewerke, the first drive was over just over two and a half minutes into the game with Michigan state up 7-0. The Spartans would have been up two scores later in the quarter if not for a costly fumble at the 7 yard line by White.
And then things got ugly.
Warner retreated into his shell, hoping it would be enough to come away with a victory. The offense was hindered in scoring by two missed field goals and limited to three points across the next two quarters, but there wasn’t much to write home about. Anyone who watched the game would be foolish to pin all the struggles on Warner, as Lewerke missed several open receivers, at least two of which likely would have gone for touchdowns. However, it’s difficult not to be frustrated when your offense disappears for two quarters and has to come from behind to score in the final minute. The play calls were entirely predictable, especially to us lay people watching at home. Not only when the Spartans would run, but where they would run it to, led to long yards to-gain on second and third down.
Enter Lewerke’s two-minute drill.
Just like the game started with a quick score, regulation was brought to an end with one. Lewerke found a groove and led the the offense down the field for a game-tying touchdown on a spectacular catch by Felton Davis. Big plays were made by talented playmakers at quarterback and receiver.
The first and final drives of regulation were evidence of what we all hope Dave Warner can be. The in-between left us wanting more, and wondering why there is such a stark contrast between the two extremes. I understand Coach Dantonio’s commitment to the run game and desire to control the time of possession, but the strength of this team, this offense in particular, is clearly not in the running backs’ hands between the tackles. It lies with Lewerke.
While likely a difficult adjustment to make, I still think this team has a chance to make noise in the Big Ten if they realize this. LJ Scott is one of the most talented backs in the conference, but his tendency to put the ball on the turf makes him too much of a liability to rely on. Madre London hasn’t been much better and Gerald Holmes struggles to get upfield with the ball. None of this is aided by the fact that the offensive line has failed to generate much of a push up front at all, outside of one game against Minnesota. But they have been solid in pass protection. I’m sure there are many out there that disagree, including the ones the matter – within the MSU coaching staff, but if the Spartans want to compete with Penn State and Ohio State, Lewerke needs to throw 30-40 times per game.
They can return to a run-first team next year, when the offensive line is better, but, for now, they need to let the playmakers make plays to stay in the conversation. They’re just not good enough to win with the boring stuff.