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Home US Sports NCAAF Michigan State football spring game yields lessons, hope for 2019

Michigan State football spring game yields lessons, hope for 2019

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LSJ columnist Graham Couch and Freep beat writer Chris Solari break down the Spartans’ spring football game.
Mike DeFabo and Graham Couch and Chris Solari, Lansing State Journal

EAST LANSING – The hardest of the games for Brian Lewerke to watch from last season is the Michigan game — his 5-for-25 performance, a 21-7 home loss that might have played out differently if his right arm had its usual strength.

“It’s tough,” Lewerke said Saturday, after Michigan State’s spring football game. “I remember going back, I watched the Michigan game, compared to even the game before, before I got hurt. My arm just doesn’t look the same at all. My motion was all messed up. It’s tough looking back. I don’t do it a ton, because I feel like I can’t learn very much from it.”

He can’t. But maybe we can.

Saturday’s MSU spring game was filled with reminders of what the Spartans’ passing game can look like — when Lewerke’s arm is humming, when receivers Cody White and Darrell Stewart Jr. are healthy. 

MSU deserved much of its late-season criticism. The Spartans failed to score a touchdown in three of their final four games. No matter how deep and devastating your injury list, you ought to be able to manufacture a touchdown once in a while. Hence the shuffling of the offensive staff this offseason..

But what we saw Saturday from Lewerke and his top targets was also a reminder that the Spartans weren’t healthy last year — that Lewerke wasn’t right after taking a shot to the shoulder in mid-October at Penn State, that White missed four games and then played with protection on his broken hand, that Stewart missed two games and was hobbled for others, that Jalen Nailor missed seven games, including that November stretch when MSU’s offense lacked any sort of pop. And obviously there was Felton Davis’ crushing midseason Achilles injury, too.

Judging MSU’s offense from beyond Oct. 13 — when Lewerke connected with Davis in the final seconds to beat Penn State — is largely unfair. We all knew that. Yet there was definitely a point along the way when understanding and frustration gave way to exasperation and harsh reactions. Again, some warranted. 

Some weren’t. Lewerke took a pounding on social media. And when then-redshirt freshman backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi got the offense moving against Purdue, debate set in. Followed by confusion when Lewerke started over Lombardi at Maryland and Ohio State, and when Lombardi came back to earth at Nebraska. Purdue’s sieve-like zone pass defense had fooled us. Even Lombardi said as much.

Lewerke had gone from promising unknown, to beloved young starter, to big man on campus, to, “Let’s see the backup” and “Wonder if he’ll be a grad transfer and leave for Arizona State.”

That, he learned from.

“It was my first time really having something like that happen to me,” said Lewerke, who will be a fifth-year senior this fall. “I think it just helps my skin get tougher, which you need in the NFL, which is where I want to go. (There,) people will blast on you no matter what. I think it just helps me overall in the long run.”

Saturday, he actually looked again like someone who might get a shot in the NFL, completing 14 of 20 passes for 181 yards. His arm was lively, his touch accurate. His wideouts look healthy and capable, like veteran pass-catchers who can make plays. The first-unit offense moved again — even briefly against the first-team defense.

“He was definitely zipping it, definitely getting it there,” Stewart said of Lewerke. “It’s just Brian Lewerke, he’s back.”

It seemed like it. He and the other players who battled through injury last season ought to be given the benefit of the doubt — that what we saw Saturday is who they are.

I think where there is apprehension is in the memory of what MSU’s offense was before the injury bug crippled it — still flat and inconsistent and disappointing, with almost no running game, at Arizona State, against Central Michigan and Northwestern.

Yet that uninspiring attack, mostly healthy, might have been enough to beat Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska, if you remember how those games unfolded and what MSU’s defense became. MSU’s defense almost won those three Big Ten games on its own, before the dam broke late. It wouldn’t have taken much help from the offensive side. 

We’ll see soon enough if new offensive coordinator Brad Salem makes a difference. “(The offense is) it’s quicker, more uptempo, trying to use different formations,” Lewerke said. “Different formations, try to mix things up. Running the same play different ways and doing what we do best.”

We’ll see in 4 1/2 months whether MSU’s offensive line is sound enough to get a regular push and keep Lewerke upright. One could argue, for MSU to truly contend, the offensive line question is everything.

But if, at bare minimum, Lewerke, White, Stewart and Nailor are what they were Saturday on Saturdays this fall, you’ll see a different season.

RELATED:  Couch: 3 quick takes on the Michigan State football spring game

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Contact Graham Couch at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.

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