Because Michigan State’s offense has been struggling for more than a year now, nerves have been starting to get a little frayed in and around East Lansing. Players and coaches have been feeling it, too — and not liking it one bit.
Something has to change. And maybe Saturday night, we saw a reason for hope.
We saw running back Elijah Collins.
The redshirt freshman from Detroit gained 192 yards on 17 carries in his first real bit of action with the Spartans. He showed so much in the 51-17 win over Western Michigan that it flips the script on this entire season for Michigan State. The Spartans have an elite defense — especially against the run — but now maybe, just maybe, the offense can do its share, too. If the offense can produce, then talk of contending in the Big Ten East becomes real again.
It’s about time.
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Michigan State won its season opener against Tulsa on Friday, Aug. 30, but the offense was ugly in the 28-7 win. So when the Spartans came to work this week, there was plenty of tenseness in the meeting rooms.
“You can tell when Coach D isn’t happy,” Michigan State senior quarterback Brian Lewerke said of his head coach, Mark Dantonio. “When he walked into the team meeting room on Tuesday, you could tell he wasn’t happy. He gave us a mouthful.
But it fired me up a little bit, and I think it did as well for some other guys. We were just motivated. The offense kind of struggled the first game, everyone was freaking out, but we were fine. We knew what we had to do.”
Dantonio knew what he had to do, too. With the Michigan State running game still a mess, he knew he had to mix things up. After all, the Spartans averaged only 2.7 yards per carry in the opener, and that’s never good enough.
So a day later, after ripping his team in the meeting room, he met with Collins. And the change was made.
“It happened on Wednesday. Me and Coach D sat down and talked one-on-one, and he told me that they thought I could be the guy,” Collins said. “I kind of got the heads up that I’d be a starter.”
And what a start it was.
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Michigan State’s first possession set the tone for Saturday’s win. The Spartans scored in just four plays, and Collins had runs of 29 yards and 11 yards. By the end of the first quarter, it was 21-0 Spartans. Just like that.
“I thought that we came out energized, and certainly our offense had a lot of big plays early in the game, three-for-three going down the field early in the game and 21 straight points. We were able to run the ball and I thought (Brian) Lewerke played extremely well,” Dantonio said. “We did what we needed to do in terms of playing hard, playing with toughness, knowing what to do; we got on people.”
Michigan State led 31-7 at the half, and they showed no signs of letting up when Collins went 56 yards in the first play from scrimmage. That was another statement being made.
“He busted some runs and got to the second level and hit it,” Dantonio said. “You can see his speed and some other guys make some big plays. We had a big run that (first) series. We were sort of off from there; I just coach one play at a time to be quite honest with you. We are just trying to get one play at a time, but I thought were in rhythm. The plays were coming in very fast and there was success.”
“We actually played four tailbacks, but I thought Elijah had a big game. I was happy for him and our offensive line because they made it happen and our tight ends and everybody got involved.”
As a true freshman, Collins had just two carries in the final game and was redshirted. The talent was there, but it was going to take a little time for him to get acclimated. Having another full spring, summer and fall camp clearly has made a difference.
“I sort of felt like he has the physical skills, he is strong, and he is very explosive player,” Dantonio said. “He just needs confidence. He got 17 carries (Saturday night), and I think 192 yards maybe, so he had a couple big ones. He just needs to get in rhythm, and I think he did that.”
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Offensive coordinator Brad Salem, the man most responsible for turning around this offense, saw enough the first week to give Collins a chance. It was a wise decision.
“We sort of got the tailback by committee, and he’s done a nice job and had some good carries last week so felt like, let’s start out with him,” Salem said. “And it’s always been that way with Coach Dantonio and even when I was doing running backs back in 2010, 2011 and 2012 was kind of whoever got hot. We had three guys at that time, maybe four, who got hot and rolling, and so you know it’s neat to see him. You know obviously you can get a rusher over 100 yards, so it was a big day for him.”
Salem likes what Collins brings to the table.
“He has a nice burst, you know, and he’s got good vision,” Salem said. “He’s a really strong kid, has a strong lower body and does a nice job running through tackles. “But when he sees it, you see the acceleration and I think he’s got the whole run ability.”
Everyone saw it, too.
“I just want to be good (on offense) and I think we took a big step (Saturday night),” said Lewerke, who threw for 314 yards and three scores himself in leading and offense that rolled up 582 yards. “What I said all week was that we’re going to win this game whether it’s a close one or a big one, but it’ll be up to the offense. We obviously showed that.”
It was Collins’ breakout moment, for sure. There’s more to come.
“I’ve been playing football my whole life, and this is just something that I had gotten used to, making cuts here and there,” Collins said. “Everyone might not see them, but some things have kind of become second nature, seeing the hole or open areas. It’s just what I do.
“I feel tremendous. It’s a great day to be a Spartan.”