QB Brian Lewerke provides rare dual threat for Michigan State
The quarterback faked a handoff, took a few hard steps to his right, planted his foot and sprinted into the secondary. He accelerated past midfield — swallowing the turf with long, confident strides — and shifted the ball into his left hand as defensive backs and linebackers dutifully chased his shadow.
“He’s got jets, folks!” the local radio announcer bellowed, and 61 yards later, the quarterback arrived in the end zone untouched.
On Saturday night, that same quarterback will take the field inside Spartan Stadium.
But it’s not dual threat Notre Dame junior Brandon Wimbush.
For the first time in a long time, Michigan State’s quarterback can run.
“I've been very impressed with (Michigan State quarterback Brian) Lewerke,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on Tuesday. “(He’s) very poised, can run. If you fall asleep in zone option, he's going to pull it. He's capable of running out. He had a nice long run against Western Michigan.”
Considering Michigan State’s (literal) lack of a quarterback track record, Lewerke’s legs are worth emphasizing. Last season, Spartan quarterback Tyler O’Connor — who started 10 games — rushed for 70 net yards and 1.1 yards per carry. The four years prior, Connor Cook averaged 1.2 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns in four seasons. From 2008 to 2011, Kirk Cousins ran for a whopping total of minus-127 yards and scored one measly touchdown.
In 12 combined seasons at Michigan State, O’Connor, Cook and Cousins ran for a grand total of 246 yards.
In two games this season, Lewerke — a 6-foot-3, 212-pound redshirt sophomore — has rushed for 150 yards, two touchdowns and 8.8 yards per carry.
The aforementioned 61-yard touchdown in a 28-14 victory over Western Michigan on Sept. 9, in fact, was Michigan State’s longest quarterback touchdown run since 1973.
Like Wimbush, Lewerke remains largely unproven. Still, there’s no denying the first-year starter’s presence adds another element to the Spartan offense.
“Yeah, he's always been able to do that,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said of Lewerke’s read-option handiwork. “I think that's something that he was able to do in high school, so he's sort of gifted in that way. He's got great ball-handling skills, rides out, fakes well, things of that nature. I think it's been a positive.
“You know, I think when you have a quarterback that can run, you have a different dynamic, so I think that's been a positive for us.”
It also presents a different dynamic for the Notre Dame defense. Through three games this season, ND’s opposing starting quarterbacks — Temple’s Logan Marchi, Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Boston College’s Anthony Brown — have rushed just 11 times for minus-32 yards against the Irish, with the majority of those numbers stemming from sacks and scrambles. In all 2017 games, that less-than-fleet-footed trio has carried the football 34 times for minus-1 yard.
Notre Dame, it appears, has yet to be seriously challenged by a capable dual threat quarterback.
That, of course, will change on Saturday night.
“They are playing well defensively,” Dantonio said of the Notre Dame defense. “I think for all the things that you hear about the (offense’s) big plays, because that's what I guess sells tickets, they are playing well defensively and they are playing well in the front seven.
“You don't see a lot of people running the ball very effectively against them and they have not given up a lot of points. So it's tough.”
It certainly wasn’t tough a year ago, when Michigan State ran for 260 yards and five yards per carry in a 36-28 road win at Notre Dame. Through two games this season, albeit against Mid-American Conference opponents, the Spartans rank 16th nationally in rushing offense (255.5 yards per game) and 27th in yards per carry (5.4).
Michigan State’s trio of talented running backs — juniors L.J. Scott and Madre London and senior Gerald Holmes — are certainly a large part of that, as is a front five that Kelly called “a much more athletic offensive line than Michigan State has presented to us in the past.”
But the team’s leading rusher, through two games, is Lewerke.
And, according to his next opponent, that’s more foreshadowing than fluke.
“I think he has more than just escape-ability,” Kelly said. “He's fast. He can run.”