East Lansing, MI – In early October, I posed a simple question to our readers here at Spartan Nation.
Will the Michigan State offense return to form?
Through four games, the answer is no.
In fact, it might be worse than in previous years.
Michigan State's Rushing Attack
When Mel Tucker arrived, he clearly stated what he wanted the Spartan offense to accomplish; part of his plan involved being able "to run the ball on our terms."
"That doesn't mean three yards and a cloud of dust; that means when we want to run it, we can," Tucker said in February. "When we need to run it, we can."
So far, Michigan State isn't just falling short of personal goals; they can't run the ball consistently or efficiently.
MSU ranks 122nd out of 124 teams in rushing offense, averaging 73.8 yards per game, and are third-worst in the nation with 2.22 YPC.
It doesn't stop there.
Michigan State has rushed for 60 yards or less in three out of four games in 2020, including Saturday's shutout loss to Indiana.
Afterwards, Tucker questioned whether or not the Spartans can run certain plays, "or do we have to come up with something else?"
It's a fair assessment considering none of the five running backs MSU has used are averaging more than 3.5 YPC.
However, it's also a recurring issue.
In 2018 Michigan State finished 114th for its rushing attack (124.8 YPG), and a year later, they were 113th even with Elijah Collins carrying the ball 222 times for 988 yards and five touchdowns.
Speaking of which, what happened to him?
The Big Ten's top returning rusher has 19 carries for 22 yards while Connor Heyward, Brandon Wright, Anthony Williams Jr., and Jordon Simmons combine 80 carries, 248 yards, and no scores.
The Spartans only touchdown on the ground came from tight end Tyler Hunt, who rushed into the endzone on a jet sweep during a 49-7 loss at Iowa.
And all five guys combined are averaging 2.7 YPC.
Yet, it isn't entirely their fault.
Michigan State's offensive line hasn't generated much push, nor have they provided consistent pass protection – and when they do, occasionally, the running back hits the wrong hole.
"We've given guys opportunities to run the ball in the backfield, and then we'll make a decision going into this next game who's going to get the lion's share of the carries and who's not," said Tucker. "It's a constant work in progress."
Michigan State's Passing Attack
Michigan State faces uncertainty at quarterback after Rocky Lombardi struggled to generate any offense through the air in games against Iowa and Indiana.
He combined for 248 yards, five interceptions, and zero touchdowns while completing 44% of his passes in those contests.
After tossing two interceptions on the first play of separate drives, Tucker replaced him with Payton Thorne nearly 10-minutes before halftime.
"We thought it was some decision making early in the game in the first half, and then Payton was the next man up, and so we gave him an opportunity," Tucker said. "It was as simple as that."
Here's where Michigan State's passing attack ranks so far.
- Completion Percentage: No. 99 (55.7%)
- Passing Offense: No. 49 (250 YPG)
- Team Passing Efficiency: No. 93 (118.43 Pass Eff.)
- Passes Had Intercepted: No. 106 (8)
- Passing Yards Per Completion: No. 51 (12.82)
Yes, Michigan State ranks inside the top-50 for its passing offense, but it's misleading, which is why I included the teams passing efficiency – a stat containing four basic factors including completion percentage, yards per pass, touchdowns per pass, and interceptions per pass.
So, the Spartans are closer to having the 93rd best air raid in the nation than the 49th – anyone who watches them play can see why especially if you exclude the game against Michigan.
Michigan State ranks 110th for total offense (323.8 YPG) and is on pace to finish worse than a 2018 team who averaged 18.7 points per game.
The Spartans can't score (15.3 PPG this year), not regularly anyway, and it's not something new.
Last year, MSU averaged 22.4 PPG, finishing 105th and the 2017 squad was just inside the top-100 at No. 96 (24.5 PPG).
It doesn't help that Michigan State can't stay on the field long enough to put points on the board – they are completing 34.9% of third-downs (No. 96).
Not that I have to spell it out, but that isn't good.
And MSU hasn't been inside enemy territory often enough.
Right now, Michigan State is tied for first in red-zone offense, obviously a major smokescreen because the Spartans have been at or inside the 20-yard line just five times through four contests.
They've scored on every occasion (four touchdowns, one field goal), meaning MSU did capitalize on their opportunities.
Still, most of the time, they aren't moving far enough downfield to be in a position where Michigan State can threaten teams.
Of seven touchdowns, three were completions of 50 and 30-yards to Jayden Reed (vs. Rutgers), Jalen Nailor (vs. Rutgers), and Ricky White (vs. Michigan).
It's a less than ideal recipe for success.
In week one vs. Rutgers, MSU consistently shot itself in the foot, turning the ball over seven times (nine if you count downs) and stunted anything they wanted to do offensively.
When Michigan State beat U-M and didn't cough it up once, things seemed to be okay.
People thought 'maybe it was an outlier,' but since then, MSU has given it up seven more times allowing opposing teams to score 34-points off critical errors.
"Again, turnovers and penalties in the first half against any type of team; any team, you do not give yourself a chance," said Tucker. "And that was basically the story of this game."
In 2019, the Spartans turned it over 24-times (13 games) and are now attempting to best those numbers with 14 giveaways in four tries.
Tell us what you think in the comment section below.
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