Scouting Report and Prediction: Michigan State 4-3 vs. Purdue 4-3

 

A look at this week’s opponent…

 

The Spartan season is on the brink.   Michigan State is 4-3 and a loss to Purdue puts legitimate speculation on even making a Bowl game.  While a six win or even a seven-win season would be a disappointment, failing to make a bowl would be an unmitigated disaster.

 

Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm has his Boilermakers coming off a massive upset win over Ohio State.  But the former star player and rising star coach acknowledge the elephant in the room right away.  “So anything can happen on any given Saturday in college football, and this is a tough matchup for us. These guys will come in hungry and fired up for a win, and we’re going to have to respond and play a clean football game just to have a chance. But I know our guys will be able to get back to work tomorrow in the practice field and we’ll work as hard as we can to try to find a way to win this game.”

 

MSU head man Mark Dantonio said of the Boilers momentum after taking out Ohio State, “I think, first of all, Purdue started out 0-3 losing three games very, very late in the game, and then now they’ve gone on a four-game win streak. Playing very, very well right now offensively. Been very impressed with their quarterback. He dishes the ball to the correct people, spreads it around. No. 4 Rondale Moore is an outstanding receiver, freshman, do-it-all kind of guy. Jet sweeps, catching the ball, punt return, kickoff return. Coach Brohm has done a great job there since getting there really last year and sort of turning the program. He’s going to run trick plays. He’s going to run fake punts, four of them last year, so those type of things.  I think on the defensive side of the ball, they’re a 4-3 defense and they play extremely hard, play very well on 3rd and short, which gives you an indication of where they’re at, sort of a combined effort there, a lot of good players. And then their tailback is running effectively, as well, Knox.  Very good football team right now, playing hot, so we’re going to have our challenges cut out for us there.”

 

Mark Dantonio has done amazing things at MSU.  He should have the full confidence of everyone.  But he has tough decisions to make and his track record at MSU clearly demonstrates that he will make them.

When MSU has the ball…

I was made aware late Tuesday night of Michigan week that Brian was not practicing.  I was asked not to report it and did not, but on Friday I was told, “Rocky (Lombardi) took the reps and he is going to start on Saturday.”

 

While no one wanted Lewerke to get hurt, he was and Lombardi’s teammates and many on the staff were excited about the Spartans game plan against Michigan.  Dantonio made the decision to go with Lewerke on Saturday.  Can you blame him considering the success of what his QB had done for him in the past?

 

But I can tell you this, late Saturday and into Sunday morning I was contacted by those INSIDE the program who felt bad for the beating that OC Dave Warner was taking for not playing Lombardi.  They felt it was unfair to the Spartans OC.

As soon as the game started I broke the story that Lewerke was “Dinged up.”  I waited until the game started (as I was asked) to report that.  Warner didn’t want to discuss injuries (being obedient to his boss) after the game and sidestepped our questions about Lewerke’s health.  While not forthcoming, I don’t think he lied and I KNOW that he was aware while many attacked him on social media for being oblivious.  He was not.  He was walking a delicate line of honoring his coach and the man who signs his paycheck and trying to answer.  It was not a good look for Warner or the program, but this one doesn’t fall on him.  The criticism he took in my opinion after the game was understandable but unfair.

So late Saturday and into Sunday morning, those inside who contacted me, asked me to inquire of Dantonio if keeping Lewerke in the game was really a decision made by Warner.  They told me, “Dave wanted to make a change, he knew Brian wasn’t able to do it and it was Coach that kept him in there.”

So I did ask Dantonio on Sunday night and he confirmed it.  Again, not sure how you get upset with Dantonio, but he has said often, “I am a defensive coach and I trust them to handle that side of the ball.”  While I understand and respect Dantonio for his loyalty, he sided against his offensive leader.

 

So, on Tuesday Dantonio and I had this amicable exchange:

Hondo Carpenter: You’ve told us numerous times you’re a defensive coach and you really rely on your offensive guys, so why doesn’t Rocky have your confidence when Dave Warner wanted to make the change?
MARK DANTONIO: Well, first of all, my decision was to let Lewerke go one more series, but that series — and then there was a long drive against our defense. We sort of took the clock. So that was a situation, otherwise, he would have been in there with probably about seven minutes to go. He needs to get rid of the ball quicker. When he’s had an opportunity to play, he’s taken too many sacks. I think he can be a good quarterback, but that’s the situation. Get rid of the football.

 

I want to make this really clear.  I made people close to Connor Cook angry with me when I reported during his last season that many inside the program thought the best QB in the program may have been Lewerke.  That was not my opinion, I wasn’t in practice, but it was what I was being told by players and staff alike.

 

I have been a strong advocate of Lewerke.  But even before his injury, he has struggled this season.  There are MULTIPLE reasons why and do not think this is all on him.  But he has struggled, that is fair.  I wrote about the seven drops committed by his receivers at Penn State.  Someone told me six this week, but I credited him with seven, but it still didn’t excuse his failures there.

 

According to people in the program and pro scouts, his technique has not been good as a whole and while he does have a smaller offensive line because of the Spartans desire for “athleticism,” his pre-snap reads according to those in the program and from pro scouts have been “Horrendous.”  But when healthy, Lewerke was the man with experience.  If he is not 100%, the Spartans have way too much on the line.

 

Is it Lewerke’s fault LJ Scott was out?  No.  Multiple WR’s are down?  No.  Small offensive line?  Nope.  But he is responsible for what he does.  I wrote numerous times during and after the game that he was gutsy and heroic for even trying to play last week.  Despite a bad performance, on the guts meter, it was amazing.  That young man took one for the team.  He should not have been asked to in my opinion.

If he is ready to go and can make all the throws and runs you have to start him.  If he is not 100% and able to do it all they can’t.  Not hating on him, I am telling the truth.

 

After last year’s Northwestern loss, I have said many times that Dave Warner the rest of the season was magnificent.  While you can certainly be critical of play calling at times, the rage towards Warner is unfounded.  I understand that in today’s world that will not get me fans, it is truthful and that is what matters.  He has a boss.  He has to do what his boss tells him.  If you don’t like the offense, Mark Dantonio is a big man and is paid millions of dollars (rightfully, he has earned it) and he can take the heat.

 

The Spartan offense is not working.  There are no excuses.  Players get hurt.  You must recruit and develop players to back them up.  What MSU has done this season has taken a team that had legitimate playoff aspirations and seen it tumble to 4-3.  The Season is not over, but it is on life support.

 

The Boilers held a potent OSU offense to only 76 yards rushing.  Brohm addressed his emerging rushing D as they take on a Spartan team with a mindset determined to run. “I always feel like our defense is set up to stop the run and that’s what we’re going to try to do. We’ve gotten better the past few weeks at doing a good job of that.  We knew this team wanted to throw the ball, and I don’t think they tried to run the ball as much as some other teams would, but the great thing is, we’re very good on short yardage situations to this point.  We’ve been very good inside the ten-yard line. We tightened things up. We make them earn it, and I think whenever we do that, we play better in general, but I was very proud of our defense for holding them out the end zone.”

 

Dantonio said of the Purdue defense, “I think they play them very well, especially on like short yardage situations. From their defense, play a lot of cover one, man coverage, some quarters coverage, zone pressure like a lot of different people, running the front side back or off the edge, that type of thing. That seems to be the thing that everybody is doing right now to try and throw people off on the RPO’s and things of that nature.  No. 41, I believe, Markus Bailey, is a guy that makes a lot of plays for them out of Hilliard, Ohio. Pretty stout up front, secondary. I like their corners. It’ll be a challenge.”

 

Brohm said of Brian Lewerke, “I really like him. I know last year he was lights-out, had some big numbers, played well. I know this year, it hasn’t maybe been quite as good as last year to this point but there’s still a lot of season left. He’s got a continue of experience.  I think, you know, he’s got, you know, when he has the right weapons, getting open and doing their part, he can deliver the ball and create plays with his feet. Like I said, I think he’s a very, very good quarterback. One of the better quarterbacks in this conference for sure.”

 

MSU will not win this game straight running the ball.  Purdue is very good against the run.  If MSU is to have success rushing they are going to have to use the pass to set up the run.

 

Purdue has a 126th ranked pass defense but they carry the 41st ranked squad against the run.  With Lewerke’s injury, can he throw this team to victory?  Not if his health is not restored.  Can he lower his shoulder and use his legs to help open the running game?  Not if his health is not restored.  Will MSU start Lewerke and test him or simply go all out on Rocky Lombardi if Lewerke is not healthy from the start?  Dantonio surprised people last week, so no one knows.  I don’t believe Coach D is even aware of what he will do as of yet.

 

When MSU is on defense…

Dantonio sees a resurgent Boiler team on his radar. He said of them starting 0-3 and now being 4-0 since, “ I think that if you listen to Coach Brohm, they’ve gone on the attack a little bit more and spread things out. I think they have a dynamic guy in No. 4 who’s made plays for them, and he’s stayed healthy. I think the majority of their receiver situation are running backs who have stayed healthy. And then, you know, the quarterback has done a great job, you know, and they inserted him. They were going back and forth with two quarterbacks and then they finally figured out that this was the guy they were going to go with, and he’s done an outstanding job. Very few interceptions, I think two for him, maybe 17 touchdown passes maybe, something like that. So he’s been very productive.  You know, we’ve got our work cut out for us on the defensive side of the ball, there’s no question.”

 

Brohm said of his prolific attack, “Our goal is to get in the end zone, and I think our guys have been opportunistic.  We have taken chances. We wanted to make sure no matter what the score was in this game or the half or the quarter, that we continue to take shots and be aggressive and try to score, and I think because of that, it paid off. It helped us get touchdowns at the end of the game. It’s helped us respond when the other team has made a run and things have been bouncing our way lately, as well. I think all of those things have added up to some victories and we have to find a way to keep that going.”

 

Brohm said of the MSU D, “Well, they have been consistent for years. They play Coach Dantonio-style defense. Their front four is very good. The linebacker play downhill. They are going to pressure on the outside.  Normally they are going to play four cross quarter coverage, support the run hard and deep play action over the top and deep press on you and make you earn it. That’s what they do. They don’t want to give you a lot of easy completions. They are sound, but they are strong up front and that’s going to be once again a tough matchup for us.  I think that we handled Ohio State about as good as we could but they were fast and they were good and we had to get it out quick at times. And when we did have to max protect, to throw it up the field, we had to hold on and sometimes we were getting hit quite a bit when we threw it.  But they played as hard as they could. This group I think is very stout, very strong and they come off the ball well. They play the run well. So we’ll have our hands full up front.”

The Boilers take risks and they love to throw.  The key to this game is pressure.  Purdue is going to get yards.  A lot of them, but can MSU force them to hurry and can they create turnovers?

With an injured QB or a redshirt freshman at the helm, once again the Spartans need a heroic performance from their defense to help the offense out.

 

Intangibles…

 

Remember the rule of five. If MSU wins that, this game is over. For those who don’t remember it, it has to do with sacks and turnovers. If the Spartans have three sacks and give up two that means they are plus one. If they then get four turnovers and give up only one that means they are plus three. That would give them a plus four for the day. They want to get to a plus-five ratio at least every game.  Teams that win the rule of five wins 91% of ball games.

 

 

Brohm’s Boilers came into the season with massive expectations.  They started out at 0-3, but since then they may be the hottest team in the nation (not named Alabama) with a 4-0 winning streak.

 

Brohm said of that start and subsequent winning streak, “I am proud of the turnaround that we’ve had to this point. I think we’ve learned a lot from our mistakes. The losses hurt and they hurt bad and they hurt us all and we found ways to improve and it meant something to us.  The fact that we have award winners from this past game is a testament to pulling off a great upset against a great opponent in a great environment with a lot of things on the side thrown in there, as well, that made the game more meaningful. That’s a credit to our players.  I’m happy for them. They have gone through a lot to get to this point and to just pull off a victory like that, in my opinion, they deserve it, but I’m very proud of them.”

Dantonio and his team are desperate.  They showed that against PSU and won.  They didn’t show it against UM and lost.  Dantonio’s back is against the wall and I can tell you that you never count him out.

 

Extra Point…

 

The Boilers defense is deadly in the red zone; a place that the Spartans have struggled.  Brohm said of that success, “I think red zone, really, inside the ten-yard line is when we’re very good, because the field gets shorter. When you look at our short yardage defense on third and short and fourth and short, we’ve been outstanding because we just tighten things up and we’re going to make you earn it and we’re going to err on the side of having too many guys up in there and too many one-on-one matchups, but hopefully guys up in their face, and because of that, teams have to earn it, and I think that, you know, even when they got a few guys open, path wasn’t just quite perfect, we were able to recover.  We had a little luck on that and because of that, they didn’t hit the shots when they took them, at least not perfectly and we made plays because we had great effort. So we just did a good job and the ball bounced our way a little in the tight zone. Our guys played hard. We got a little bit of a lead.  Like I said kind of before the game, any little thing like that that happens, it gives the underdog a little more confidence and gives the other team a little more tightness, like, okay, this isn’t happening the way we wanted it to. So all those things matter and it culminated in helping us prevail.”

 

Credit Dantonio.  Many think he should medical redshirt as many as possible and try to live and fight next year.  I asked him if that was on his radar and he wanted none of that. “You know, our goal right now is to finish and finish October, and again, see what November brings. My take on things is, like I keep saying, we’re in every football game, we could win every football game. The goal of this program will be always to win, and that will be the priority. So we’ll focus on that, and as we get guys injured back, we’ll see how that all shakes out and where they’re at in the scheme of things. I think the one thing you’ve got to recognize when you get guys back, are they fully healthy or are they playing hurt, and so you want to play the best players, and so you try to do those things, even at the quarterback position. I thought he had velocity so we went with it. We’ll continue to make those decisions.”

 

I thought the most prolific thing Dantonio said this week was, “I think our focus needs to be on ourselves and how we’re going to play, our attention to detail and our execution, and things that we can come with conceptually both sides of the ball. Purdue has got a great football team. We’ve got to play to them. In other words, we have to format our plan to what they do. That’s always the case every single week, and that’s what we’ll do. But I always have pointed towards what do we do after, what do we do after any big game, any big moment, win or lose, and tried to point towards that because I think that’s a reflection of the next step for us. So that’s what we’ll do.”

Prediction…

Brohm said of the Spartans disappointing season, “I think they are a good football team. The losses they have had have been tough losses. No one blows them off the field. I know Michigan found a way to win but that was a close football game. Arizona State, close. They have had a lot of close football games, and really that’s what makes a lot of conferences. And of course the Big Ten is a great conference: On any given day, anybody can win and so they just had a little luck.”

He added, “Obviously you make some of your luck, but this will be a tough football game and a tough environment. This team is very good. They won a lot of games and they are well-coached. They play hard and for whatever reason, they have not been able to score as much lately and sometimes that comes in cycles and hopefully, we can find a way to hold them out, but it will be a very tough matchup for us.”

 

While I never wavered on this team’s talent, I have wavered on what they are doing at times.  Rightfully so.  If Lewerke is 100% and starts, the MSU talent gap with Purdue and a desperate Dantonio spell win to me.  If Lewerke is not 100% and plays like last week, I think they lose.  If Lewerke is not 100% and Lombardi starts, I think MSU rebounds and wins.

Lombardi told me of his mindset, “I prepare to start every week.   I go in with that mindset of, I’m gonna start this game. And if I do start this game, am I gonna be ready to go? And hopefully by the end of the week, that answer’s always yes.”

 

Not knowing what is going to happen, with the caveat that Lombardi starts or Lewerke is 100% and starts, I say MSU wins this 24-23.

 

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