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Lansing State Journal columnist Graham Couch gives his initial thoughts on the No. 12 Michigan State Spartans’ 38-31 win over Utah State Friday night at Spartan Stadium.

1. That push up front simply won’t do

Forget the Big Ten race or the College Football Playoff conversation, if the Spartans simply hope to finish better than fourth in the East Division, Friday’s push by the offensive line won’t cut it. LJ Scott didn’t have a carry for more than 4 yards until his 10th carry. He didn’t have a rush of more than 7 yards until his 16th attempt — and, for the most part, he had nowhere to go. 

MSU shuffled its line, moving Matt Allen to center, Tyler Higby to left tackle and freshman Blake Bueter to left guard as it searched for a surge. In short-yardage situations MSU used Brian Lewerke on sneaks rather than let the play unfold with Scott, and on third down on the goal line in the fourth quarter, MSU threw the ball rather than taking a third shot with Scott. 

MSU’s per-carry average was bolstered a tad by big runs by Connor Heyward and Lewerke in the second half — and it oddly abandoned Heyward until the last drive. Big gainers on the ground are important. It can’t all be a grind. But more important is the ability to reel off 5-, 6-, and 7-yard runs with consistency. Especially against a Mountain West opponent that, no matter its experience on the defensive front, offered less resistance than MSU will see against much of its Big Ten slate. It’s those regular chunks that wear down defenses and create a demoralizing pick-your-poison situation for opponents, considering MSU’s more-than-capable passing attack. 

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MSU struggled to move the pile with consistency a year ago against Bowling Green and Western Michigan and it foreshadowed a season where the ground game labored too often. Improvement can happen. But this was a rough start.

2. MSU’s passing game will do just fine – if protection improves

Brian Lewerke made mistakes. He overthrew a would-be touchdown pass to Cody White on MSU’s first possession, settling for a 40-yard gain. His pick-six interception late in the third quarter made the outcome dicey for a long while. But MSU’s passing game is in good shape — made plainly clear by the playmaking and gumption on the final drive.

There is a clear chemistry between Lewerke and his three wideouts — Cody White, Darrell Stewart Jr. and Felton Davis III. Each of those guys made notable plays Friday night, none better than White’s third-down vise-grip grab, followed by Davis’ lay-out deep catch on the game-winning drive. This wasn’t midseason form for Lewerke and Co., but it was plenty effective. 

That crew will become what it hopes to become, I think, if the ground game gets going and Lewerke is protected. He saw a fair amount of pressure from Utah State, which sacked him three times and hurried him at least four more.

Some of this falls on the offensive line that also struggled in the running game — sophomore Jordan Reid was beaten badly off the right edge leading to one sack. Some of it was blitz protections.

Lewerke is the franchise, even more so with MSU’s ground game not bearing much fruit. MSU protected him well last year, allowing just 1.8 sacks per game. The protection has to be better than it was Friday for several reasons, including giving Lewerke a chance to last the season.

3. MSU’s defense found its footing and then lost it, then survived

Utah State’s Jordan Love turned out to be a decent QB, with mobility, running a tempo offense, with a veteran offensive line in front of him. That’s a pain to defend. And after rough start, MSU’s defense got a handle on things for a while. Pressure from Jacub Panasiuk created a Khari Willis interception that soon after put the Spartans out in front.

But while Utah State couldn’t run the football effectively in the traditional sense, it moved it. And moved it when MSU need a stop to win the game. MSU’s defense showed flashes of a group that could be really good. But this ain’t the “No Fly Zone” or a crew that looks capable right now of demoralizing an offense. 

The Spartans will see tempo again — at least as soon as Indiana on Sept. 22. Probably more often given what transpired Friday. 

That the final tip by and pick by Joe Bachie averted disaster — a loss that would have changed this season. There’s plenty to shore up.

Contact Graham Couch at Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.


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