Northwestern and Michigan State entered Saturday’s game with questions about their quarterbacks. One left feeling good and the other left wondering.
The Michigan State Spartans saw quickly what they might have in freshman quarterback Brian Lewerke.
Mark Dantonio named the freshman his starting quarterback after a week of hand-wringing to snap a three-game losing streak. The Spartans needed something to spark an anemic group that simply was no longer performing at a high level.
Lewerke got his confidence early, hitting a big play on third down for his first completion and driving past midfield. On the Spartans’ second drive, he faked the Northwestern defense and lofted a pass over the top to Josiah Price and an early lead.
The Spartans went up 14-0 and their confidence was rolling. Lewerke was scrambling to pick up yards. For a moment, the Spartans had seemingly found their quarterback answer. A freshman who could anchor the team for years to come.
Michigan State had seemingly righted the ship.
That goes double considering the Spartans’ opponent. Northwestern came into the game with one of the worst offenses statistically in the conference. A team that scored only seven points — in the fourth quarter — against FCS Illinois State earlier in the season.
Their quarterback, Clayton Thorson, continued to be tantalizing enough to keep playing but questionable enough to begin wondering what his future at the position was. Especially if the team continued to look anemic and struggle on the offensive end as it has.
That turned out not to be the case as Northwestern scored a stunning 54-40 win over Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Saturday. Michigan State’s quarterback was the one to struggle, not the one everyone expected with Northwestern’s difficulties on offense the past two seasons.
If any quarterback was likely to struggle, even against a puzzling defense like the Spartans, it would be Thorson.
Thorson though was steady. Down 14-0, he led the Wildcats on an eight-play, 61-yard drive capped off with a Justin Jackson touchdown run, leaving Spartans defenders in his wake. Jackson’s running game relieved pressure and Thorson began slinging the ball more.
The Wildcats used their bye week well and installed more bubble screens to spread the ball to the perimeter and get athletes like Solomon Vault and Flynn Nagel in space. It certainly helped an offensive line that has sometimes struggled to protect their quarterback.
Thorson, the sophomore, has begun to string together solid games. He put in another one with 281 yards, three touchdowns and one interception on 27-for-35 passing. The Spartans stacked the box and brought the blitz, and Thorson was able to stand up to it and find his safety valve — Austin Carr (11 catches for 130 yards).
The introduction of bubble screens helped his accuracy even more. And Michigan State’s frustratingly tame defensive line gave Thorson plenty of time to throw.
Northwestern did not look like the worst offense in the conference. Or the non-functioning offense of earlier in the year.
The Wildcats kept the Spartans off balance all game. They freed up running lanes for Justin Jackson. And Thorson delivered strikes time and time again.
Lewerke’s afternoon changed suddenly and his downfall was quick too.
Joe Graziano landed on top of Lewerke in the end zone for a game-changing safety. By the time the third quarter came around, Lewerke had completed 12 of 19 passes for just 99 yards. The Spartans trailed 33-17 (the other score coming on a pick-six) and looked lifeless.
Dantonio pulled the freshman quarterback, seemingly going back on anointing his starting quarterback for the future. He returned to senior captain Tyler O’Conner.
O’Conner was able to throw some deep passes, starting off the high-scoring fireworks with touchdown throws of 59 and 86 yards in the third quarter to get Michigan State within two points (quickly dispelled with a kickoff return from Solomon Vault).
But O’Conner was clearly not the answer for Michigan State’s passing and offensive woes. O’Conner finished with 281 yards on 13-for-21 passing. But overthrew receivers on a few deep passes, could not escape constant pressure or sustain any long drives to get the Spartans back in the game.
Michigan State’s complete lack of a run game continues to hurt the quarterbacks and the offense in general. But the Spartans have capable wide receivers. There still should be some potency.
Michigan State’s entire identity as a program has been called into question during this losing streak. The offense is certainly not spared.
And neither is their quarterback.
As one struggling offense in Northwestern seemed to grow in confidence and build momentum toward the second half of the season, Michigan State seems only to have more questions about what is best and how to right the ship before the end of the season.