After perhaps the worst loss of the Mel Tucker era, it can be difficult to think positively about the product Michigan State is rolling out.
However, credit has to be given where credit is due — after a rather shaky performance in the first half of the season, Michigan State’s offense finally seems to be headed in the right direction, balancing pass attack and ground play with efficiency.
“Ultimately at this level you have to be great at running with the ball and throwing the ball,” said offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. “We were a little bit off (but) I think we’ve evolved and are moving forward and doing better things.”
The humiliating and devastating 39-31 overtime loss to Indiana last Saturday left a lot to be desired, but it certainly wasn’t offense that the Spartans lost in that game.
MSU passed the Hoosiers 540-288 in total yards, more than doubled the number of first downs and passed the visitors by more than 10 minutes. While the ball didn’t move quite as easily around the field in the second half, Michigan State’s overall offense was enough to win the ballgame on paper.
“I thought it was a good move last week to see what we could do together with the run and the pass,” Johnson said.
Aside from a second-half interception on a tipped pass that was picked, redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne had a solid afternoon against the Hoosiers.
In fact, the MSU quarterback has played an effective stretch of football since throwing an interception against Illinois on the very first play.
“I think he struggled through some adversity early on and kept going up,” Johnson said. “In these last three, four weeks he’s started to play at a newer level and has evolved.”
Well, to be fair, Thorne was far from perfect. Every week it seems like there are at least a couple of games left on the field due to an overthrow or a subjugation. But overall, it’s hard to argue that Thorne looked much stronger in the second half of the season.
The usual suspects certainly got their fair share of goals — guys like redshirt senior wide receiver Jayden Reed and second wide receiver Keon Coleman are still extremely active on the field — but Thorne spread the ball across a variety of targets.
Redshirt tight end sophomore Maliq Carr is one of the targets who’s been getting some more offensive love lately, posting a season-high with four receptions and his first touchdown of the season against Indiana.
An improved rushing attack certainly has to do with this effectiveness through the air. Just a few weeks ago, the Spartans were averaging less than 100 rushing yards per game, ranking near the bottom of the nation. They’ve surpassed that number for three straight weeks now, with a high of 242 yards against Indiana.
“It helps a lot…putting positive yards on the ground,” Thorne said. “Keep the defense honest.”
Thanks to some truly brutal performances in the first half of the season, Michigan State still ranks outside the top 100 in rushing yards per game (average 121, which is 105th on the FBS). However, it is still a positive sign of progress to see that the stats are trending in the right direction.
Perhaps most impressive about the improved rushing attack is that MSU did it with a battered offensive line. Players like fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jarrett Horst and sixth-year senior offensive guard Matt Carrick have lost time through injuries in recent weeks.
In the absence of those starters, Michigan State has called on younger, less experienced offensive linemen to fill in the gaps. Redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Brandon Baldwin and redshirt freshman offensive lineman Geno VanDeMark are just a few young players who are doing admirably in a bigger role.
“I’m really happy with Brandon and Geno,” Johnson said. “They did a very good job and stepped in when needed.”
This weekend should show if MSU’s improved offense is just a mirage or a legitimate form of progression. En route to Happy Valley, the Spartans will face off in a hostile environment against strong Penn State defenses. With bowl eligibility at stake, it’s time to see if Michigan State’s offense can really build on the marginal gains it has made of late.
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