Questions remain, but Spartans look poised for big 2016 season
EAST LANSING, Mich. – If you came to Michigan State’s spring game looking for concrete answers, you most likely left unsatisfied.
Is the offensive line ready to go? Maybe.
Is Tyler O’Connor the answer at quarterback? I guess.
Is LJ Scott capable of being a workhorse running back? Possibly.
Are the young receivers ready to step up? Perhaps.
For the record, the White defeated the Green, 14-11. But the answer to those aforementioned queries is mostly a collective shrug of the shoulders. Still, no one left sun-splashed Spartan Stadium disappointed in a program whose most yawning issues are on offense.
Yes, issues still tug at the headset of Mark Dantonio, as he begins to author his 10th season in East Lansing. But at this point in his tenure, Dantonio deserves the benefit of the doubt in filling key personnel holes that nag this edition of the Spartans. And, it’s an edition that could repeat as Big Ten East and Big Ten champs … if those questions are answered.
The biggest area that requires bolstering is the offensive line. Last season, the Spartans ranked just ninth in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 151.3 yards per game and just 3.8 yards per rush. And that was with stalwarts like Jake Allen and Jack Conklin, along with Donovan Clark, blocking up front. Now, all three are gone, as the front is being rebuilt. For the most part, the big boys acquitted themselves. And, that was a good sign. Still, stay tuned.
The ball carriers look capable. They may even be elite. Scott is back after leading the team with 699 yards rushing in 2015. In fact, Gerald Holmes, Madre London and Delton Williams give coaches four good options. Scott is the leader. But, is he a difference-maker? Is he a guy who can get to the edge and make a play?
The last time we saw MSU, it was getting stuffed by Alabama in a playoff game, running 26 times for 29 yards in a 38-0 loss in the Cotton Bowl. It was a mind-numbing experience for a Michigan State program that is used to dominating and thought it was past games like this. No one saw the Spartans being eviscerated like that.
Consider it motivation for 2016.
That brings us to the quarterback play, which was a bit of a mixed bag on this day. Gone is Connor Cook, the winningest signal-caller in school history (34-5 record) and the school-record holder for most passing yards with 9,194 and passing TDs with 71. O’Connor is the top contender and prohibitive favorite. He is famous for starting and leading the Spartans to a huge win at Ohio State last season when Cook was out injured. O’Connor has had a good spring, but no starter will be named until the season is nearer. On this day, O’Connor led the Green to all 11 of its points on two scoring drives that included a two-point conversion pass. He finished 10-of-16 passing for 138 yards and led the Green with 28 yards rushing on four carries in front of an announced school-record crowd of 51,000.
Redshirt freshman signal-caller Brian Lewerke turned heads this spring and is one to watch. He has displayed savvy and composure that has caused Dantonio to compare him to Kirk Cousins. (Gulp.) High praise, indeed. Lewerke could be the future of the program. But on this day, it was his interception that sealed victory for the White. Regardless, he appears to have passed Damion Terry in the QB pecking order, as Terry was inconsistent and fumbled two times.
These are halcyon days in East Lansing, as Dantonio has led the Spartans to double-digit wins five of the last six seasons with a playoff berth and wins in the Rose and Cotton Bowls. Can things really get much better than this? MSU has gone 65-16 since 2010, including a sparking 39-9 mark in the Big Ten with three conference titles. The only thing missing from the resume: A national championship.
Don’t think the absence of that grand prize doesn’t burn a hole in the gut of Dantonio. He has cultivated the ultimate chip-on-the-shoulder program, able to fuel the collective fire of the Spartan Nation with sleights—perceived or real. No program plays the us-against-the-world card better. It’s quite impressive. And effective for a school that continues to stockpile talent.
The next time we see this team will be September 2, when Furman comes to town. Poor Furman. By then, you know Dantonio will have his team ready to go—and these questions answered. He better. Because after an off week, MSU plays at Notre Dame.
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