Michigan State doesn’t have a quarterback controversy entering its Big Ten East Division showdown with Ohio State on Saturday.
Coach Mark Dantonio squashed all that talk during his weekly press conference, declaring Brian Lewerke his No. 1 guy. Backup Rocky Lombardi led the team to victory over Purdue two weeks ago when Lewerke sat out with a shoulder injury, but Lewerke was back behind center in the team’s 24-3 win at Maryland.
“Brian is our starting quarterback, I think you can go with that,” Dantonio said. “That’s the foundation that he’s built here. I didn’t see any velocity issues relative to his arm strength. If he was hurt, he would not be playing.”
No. 18 Michigan State (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) is two games behind Michigan in the division standings but could still wind up in the Rose Bowl if it wins out. First, it would have to knock off No. 10 Ohio State (8-1, 5-1), which hasn’t lost at Spartan Stadium since 1999.
“This is a strange football season. A lot of people have lost. There’s a lot of two-loss teams and quite a few three-loss teams right now,” Dantonio said. “If you can’t win the Big Ten Championship — I guess mathematically, there’s still opportunity there — but I think the next thing is there, can you go to a Big Six Bowl? Can you be 9-3? Well, you’ve got to win this one if you’re going to do that.”
The Spartans have won three of the last seven meetings, including the 2013 Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes crushed the Spartans 48-3 last season in Columbus after getting upset the previous two times Michigan State visited the state.
Ohio State has been dominant in East Lansing, collecting victories in its last six journeys to Spartan Stadium. The Buckeyes pulled out a 17-16 squeaker there in 2016.
The Buckeyes need to win out to remain in contention for a College Football Playoff berth. They won’t have a chance if they continue to play like they have the past two weeks.
After getting stunned by unranked Purdue 49-20, they struggled past a rebuilding Nebraska program at home 36-31.
“They are still 8-1. Everybody is acting like, ‘poor Ohio State.’ They are still 8-1 and ranked in the Top 10,” Dantonio said. “They are pretty good and they have got some playmakers up front.”
The Buckeyes trailed at halftime and allowed 450 total yards to the Cornhuskers. Safety Isaiah Pryor and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah missed the game with undisclosed ailments.
“On defense, right now it’s the confidence factor,” coach Urban Meyer said. “You’ve got three starters out of the secondary again (last) Saturday. I think we’re going to have them all healthy (this week). It’s been like that. It’s been a deck of cards shuffling in and out of the back end of our defense.”
One of the positives from the game was the production of running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber. Dobbins rushed for 163 yards on 23 carries and three touchdowns. Weber gained 91 yards in nine carries.
Finding creases will be much more difficult against a Spartans rushing defense that ranks No. 1 in the nation. Michigan State is allowing just 71.7 rushing yards per game.
“That’s what we’re working on right now,” Meyer said of trying to sustain the success his team had running the ball. “Obviously, you’re facing the number one rush defense in the country coming up this next week. But our offensive line played very well and our backs, that was their best pad level game as far as dropping their pads and getting through those holes.”
Dobbins, a sophomore, rushed for 124 yards and also caught a touchdown pass against the Spartans last season. Weber, a junior, erupted for 162 yards on just nine carries and two touchdowns in the same game.
The Spartans will also have their hands full with sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who has thrown 32 touchdown passes and surpassed 3,000 yards this season against Nebraska.