Which came first -- Michigan State’s rushing attack or the passing game of Connor Cook?
It’s a good question, but the true answer is that it doesn’t really matter, only that both seem to be working quite well for the Spartans right now. As the conference season has gone on, the Spartans have struck a balance between their run game and pass game that has resulted in a 2-0 Big Ten record.
“We always have that in mind -- to try and stay as balanced as we can, 50-50 in our offense,” co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner said. “When we’re running the football it allows us to be balanced and that’s our goal.”
Warner was charged with finding which member of the Spartan running back corps would fill in the shoes (and yards) of Le’Veon Bell.
Last season Bell was the Spartans’ rushing attack, averaging 137.9 yards per game (third best in the FBS). He led the nation in carries (382) and gained 51 percent of his yardage after contact, according to Michigan State.
“We knew we were going to miss Le’Veon and we knew it was going to be more running back by committee coming in to this season,” Warner said. “The last couple weeks things have come together for us as an offense.”
But now, six games into the season, the Spartans might not have found a replacement for those yards, but at least they’ve scratched the surface at what the answer might be.
Junior tailback Jeremy Langford has led the Spartan running backs this season, averaging 70 yards a game. But he had a breakout day on Saturday against Indiana in which he carried the ball 23 times for 109 yards and accounted for three rushing TDs.
But it isn’t just Langford. Junior Nick Hill has registered 42 carries for 219 yards. Of late, freshman Delton Williams has come on strong. So strongly that the coaching staff decided to pull his redshirt. In just two games he has carried the ball 21 times for 124 yards, which is a team-high 5.9 yards per carry (of all players who have carried the ball at least 20 times).
“We’re just being physical,” Langford said. “And when we get past the line of scrimmage, make somebody miss and make the big plays downfield. We’re staying positive day by day, play by play.”
That attitude has helped the Spartans find some kind of an identity in the run game, which in turn has really helped Cook in the passing game.
In the Spartans’ season opener the rush game accounted for 61 percent of the offense. Against South Florida, that number jumped to 65 percent.
But when Cook took control of the offense in the Youngstown State game that number began creeping down to be a bit more even. The passing attack looked great against the Hawkeyes as Cook threw for 277 yards.
But with the exception of the Iowa game, the greatest discrepancy between the run and pass game for the Spartan offense -- since Cook became the primary QB -- has been 16 yards.
That balanced attack has made game planning for Michigan State a difficult task. Langford said he has noticed defenses playing the Spartans more honest because of how balanced they’ve been.
“I’m glad we have a pass game and the run game,” Langford said. “We’re balanced. It makes it a lot easier for the receivers and the quarterbacks and us as well. It’s a good thing.”
Michigan State faces Purdue this weekend and Illinois next and with both of those games the Spartans will have a chance to continue to build on their balanced offense.
The Boilermakers rank 10th in rushing defense (194.5 yards per game) and fifth in pass defense (222.7 yards per game) in the Big Ten. And there may be plenty of opportunities to get into the end zone since Purdue has the worst scoring defense in the conference (37.8 points per game).
Illinois has held its opponents to 27.6 points per game. The Illini rank 11th in rushing defense (195.4 yards per game) and 10th in pass defense (254.4 yards per game) in the Big Ten.
“You can’t overlook these football teams,” Warner said. “Their backs are to the wall and they’re going to come out fighting, we really believe that. I think if we’re not ready to play, we can lose to anybody and we’ve put a couple games together back-to-back so I think we need to continue that consistency.”