Since head coach Mark Dantonio arrived in East Lansing, Michigan, in 2007, Michigan State’s offensive identity has been to run the ball and extend games with a grind-it-out style designed to outlast opponents.
But this year, the Spartans’ offensive gameplan has altered due to redshirt sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke’s ascendance.
The first-year starter has completed 192-of-315 passes for 245 yards per game, including 16 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“[Lewerke is] throwing at a very high level and they’re a much different team,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said during his Monday press conference. “[They] used to be kind of a 70/30 run/pass. It’s not that right now.”
After passing for 300-plus yards just once in the first seven games of the season, Lewerke crossed the 400-yard threshold the past two weeks. He went 39-for-57 for 445 yards with four touchdowns and an interception against Northwestern in a 39-31 triple-overtime loss two weeks ago. Last week, he completed 33-of-56 passes for 400 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in an upset win against Penn State.
The quarterback also threatens defenses with his legs. Lewerke has 82 rushes for 368 yards, including a 52-yard run against Notre Dame and 61-yard rush against Western Michigan.
On Saturday in a battle between teams atop the Big Ten East, No. 12 Michigan State will look to unleash Lewerke on No. 13 Ohio State, which has struggled at times this season against quarterbacks who can escape the pass rush to survey their options downfield and pick apart a toiling secondary.
“He’s a strong-armed guy, he reads very well and he has the ability to escape, he can run,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said Tuesday. “He has the ability, if you flush him from the pocket, he can make things happen. He scrambles with his eyes down the field to make plays. He will tuck it and go, eventually. He’s very good at once things break down, creating.”
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley tossed five touchdowns against Ohio State, using play-action passes to avoid the pass rush and find creases in the defensive backfield. Oklahoma dual-threat quarterback Baker Mayfield also succeeded when escaping the pocket and finding wideouts open downfield.
In Lewerke, Meyer said, “I see a guy that’s deceptively, deceptively fast. He creates a lot of plays on his own … He’s a very accurate thrower.”
Senior defensive end Jalyn Holmes agreed with his head coach’s assessment, calling Lewerke “sneaky athletic” and complimenting his ability to run the offense.
Michigan State has run the ball on 52.5 percent of its plays, the least by a Dantonio-coached team since 2012.
“They have been passing the ball a lot lately more, but I wouldn’t be [unexpected] if it’s just all runs against us,” Holmes said with a smile.
The statistics in the past two Ohio State-Michigan State matchups back up his claim. The Spartans ran the ball on 55.6 of its plays in the 2015 season, but rushed on 64.4 percent of their plays against the Buckeyes. In 2016, Michigan State carried the ball on 56 percent of its plays during the season and on 64.4 percent of its plays against Ohio State.
“It all starts with stopping the run, so we’re focused on stopping the run to get them into the situation where they’re trying to throw the ball and then trying to get after him with the Rushman package when they have to throw it,” redshirt junior defensive end Sam Hubbard said.
Only one quarterback — Indiana’s pocket-passing Richard Lagow in the season opener — has passed for more than 400 yards against Ohio State this season. But Lewerke is the latest in a line of mobile signal-callers who pose a major threat to a shaky Buckeye pass defense.
“This is a final exam, for sure,” Schiano said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. We’ve got to make sure we’re prepared when we enter that game Saturday.”