With Connor Cook — the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history — now in the NFL, the focus of the Spartans’ offense in 2016 will be the running game.
That’s not to say the Spartans’ starting quarterback (fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor or junior Damion Terry) will be irrelevant, but it might take time for the new quarterback to develop a rhythm with his new receivers in game conditions.
It will be important for the Spartan running game to set the tone for the season, especially in week two in South Bend against Notre Dame (Sept.17), and week three at home against Wisconsin (Sept. 24) in the Big Ten opener.
The good news for the Spartans is that they have three experienced sophomore running backs who know how to run the football.
L.J. Scott, Madre London, and Gerald Holmes carried the Spartans in two of their biggest games late last season. With Cook out due to an injury in the Spartans’ 17-14 win over Ohio State, MSU’s rushing attack rolled up 203 yards and averaged 4 yards per carry.
In the Big Ten title game against a stingy Iowa defense, Michigan State’s rushing attack put up 174 yards. Scott’s tough running late in that game that put the Spartans over the top and into the College Football Playoff.
Scott’s iconic, never-say-die one-yard touchdown in the final minute didn’t merely win the game; it capped a 22-play, 82-yard drive with a dead-armed quarterback ceding the stage to his running backs. Scott, London, and Holmes have the experience of carrying the team when the passing game is not working or limited (or both). Coming into 2016, they need to be the cornerstones of the Michigan State offense.
Last season, Scott, London and Holmes gained at least 500 yards rushing and averaged at least four yards rushing per game. Scott gained 699 yards rushing and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. He also scored 11 touchdowns.
Judging from his performance late last season, you could argue that Scott should be the No. 1 back this season. He has shown he can perform in clutch situations. On that one-yard touchdown run against Iowa, he carried four Hawkeyes into the end zone. If Scott can emerge as a go-to back on a consistent basis in 2016, the Spartans will have a force who is both elusive and powerful.
London and Holmes won’t let Scott be the No. 1 back without a fight. Last season, both players showed they can barrel through defenses when they get the ball.
In 2015, London played in 11 games and started six. He gained 500 yards rushing and scored three touchdowns. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry, his longest being a 62-yard dash in the Spartans’ win over Oregon. He gained 103 yards in that game. Even if he’s not starting, London can uncork a big run off the bench.
Holmes should make a meaningful contribution to the Spartans’ rushing game this season. He gained 540 yards rushing in 2015 and scored eight touchdowns while averaging close to five yards per carry. He will get his share of touches if the other two falter.
Even though they lost three offensive linemen — two of them All-Americans — the Spartans will still have experience up front, highlighted by junior center Brian Allen, who recently made the 2016 Outland Trophy and Rimington Trophy lists.
If Spartans can run the ball well against Notre Dame and Wisconsin, two tough defenses will not be able to tee off on O’Connor and Terry at a potentially fragile stage of the season for signal callers freshly placed in a position of considerable responsibility.
The task is clear, but it is difficult: After that remarkable 22-play touchdown drive against Iowa, Michigan State must recapture that same formula in September of 2016… and build on it throughout the coming college football season.