Scope of the Spartans: The Elephant, the Stubborn, & Uncertain Times Ahead

Brian Lewerke and the Spartans vs Washington State (Duffy Carpenter @DuffyCarpenter1 )
Brian Lewerke and the Spartans vs Washington State (Duffy Carpenter @DuffyCarpenter1 )

A month ago we talked about locating the panic button for the 2018 season. Today it feels like it may be a little too late to do much with it, but go ahead and give it a firm press. Some scoffed at the notion that MSU had to do something dramatic to revive its Offense after the Indiana game. Some acted like it was a ridiculous idea, claiming that MSU could just keep being itself, and everything for the Offense would turn out okay. But some of you out there thought, “if we’re seeing these issues in front of us, plain as day, surely the MSU Staff will take notice and work up something exotic, if not extreme, to save MSU’s chances for a special 2018.” Many of you counted on the Spartans' Staff to take such action. Now a month later, little if anything changed, and there’s an even bigger concern for Spartan Football as they look forward.

There’s an unwanted elephant that’s arrived in the room with Spartan Football over the last couple of weeks. It’s the kind of elephant you should not expect to be widely addressed anytime soon. It is without a doubt a very taboo subject that is just not mentioned too often in public. On the rare occasions when it is brought up, almost everyone around the discussion feels terribly uncomfortable right away. The elephant’s existence is usually denied or dodged pretty quickly since it is as dicey of an "on-field" topic as there is in sports. That issue, which may already have you cringing, is the dreaded “yips.” Yet, in my tenth year writing for Spartan Nation, what good would be served if we just blew right past the elephant that has not only cast a wide shadow over MSU’s big hopes for 2018 but is trying to throw shade over 2019 too. Yes, it is that serious, and this is the time to take a closer look at whether Brian Lewerke is developing a case of the yips.

The “yips” are generally described as an unexplained loss of basic motor skills. You see them most often in “stick and ball” sports like golf, but also see them plenty in sports where a player’s hands are on the ball. It is not only an issue for at least two of the top five golfers on the planet today, it was an issue for a legendary basketball big man who missed more than 5,000 free throws in his career. It has been a monster for more than a few second basemen, and at least one current NFL kicker.

Take a look at this article if you have not already read it. It provides perhaps the best background of the issue that has perplexed so many, and has ruined so many promising careers. Once you throw the word "yips" on the radar for a player, it’s an issue that will be watched from that point forward because the yips are not a temporarily ailment. They are a permanent issue that has to be worked around. There is no going through them, there is not fixing them completely, they are there for good.

Experts say there appear to be two types of yips. One holds the term “Focal Dystonia,” which is a neurological movement disorder. That type of yip is the typical “twitchy” looking kind that you see in a putting stroke, from a field goal kicker, or from a simple throw that ends up way off target. Use Baba Booey or Chris Rock’s ceremonial first pitch videos as an example. These yips feature an involuntary movement that can usually be spotted on tape, if not live. Once identified and accepted, these yips are usually countered by an adjustment to a grip or technique, with varying levels of success.

The second type is a bit trickier because it does not feature a noticeable wiggle or physical hiccup. Those yips appear to be neurologically based, where an anxiety to overtakes some aspect of a person’s cognitive mechanics, which ends up producing an unusually bad result. For example, a tennis player that all the sudden can’t serve a ball into play though her physical motion is fine; a Wide Receiver who keeps dropping routine passes for no apparent reason; a top notch starting pitcher who one day cannot find the batter’s box, let alone the strike zone; or a Quarterback who starts missing simple pitches and throws by a wide margin, without any thing off in his motion. This type is commonly referred to as the “aiming” type yip.

Christian Hackenberg, Robert Griffin III, Tim Tebow, and other Quarterbacks have recently seen their careers derailed, if not ended for good, because of the yips. Not all of them had the first type of yip where you a physical movement going on, like Tebow did. More developed the “aiming type” yips where something in the mind seems to get in the way of a thrower completing a basic pass that once seemed automatic. That’s the type of yip that ended up producing the most famous case in modern Big Ten history, and that’s the type that Spartan Nation should keep an eye out for when watching Lewerke throw from this point.

Wisconsin’s Joel Stave publicly went through the yips in 2014. It was a painful process that caught college football off guard. It left Stave’s Head Coach struggling with how to handle it both publicly and internally, and it changed Stave’s Quarterbacking career for good. His issue seemingly came out of nowhere, without reason, and grew out of control to the point that Wisconsin scrambled to cover for it by initially saying that Stave had a shoulder injury.

Stave started missing easy targets in practice. He started throwing it five feet over a players head, then way in front or behind a receiver, missing the easier and simpler throws he used to make without even thinking about it. His yips didn’t get him on every throw, which is typical of how they work. While struggling behind closed doors and away from his teammates to fight them off, he reported that he could still make a lot of the deeper throws even on his worst days. But the yips completely took him out of the Badgers’ picture early in the 2014 season. To his credit, through a lot of hard work, acceptance, and adjustment, Stave figure out how to work around the yips to finish his career as a successful starter. His case remains the standard to measure and compare any potential yips issue with.

Lewerke’s throwing issues have not been around for long. After missing some easy throws in a 31/51 performance in the worst loss of the Mark Dantonio era against Northwestern, some took notice that Lewerke was pretty far off on a few balls he would have usually completed. With a severely struggling Offensive Line and injuries all around the unit, many didn’t think much of Lewerke’s misses. There were problems all around him. But then came the trip to Penn State, and at least a handful of warning signs that caught some attention, indicating that something else may need a closer look.

How else could you explain Lewerke missing a flip pass of less than 5-yards, missing a pitch of an even shorter distance, and missing more than a few routine throws by such a wide margin? Lewerke was money at the end, helping MSU get a road win that at least gave them a shot to play for the Big Ten East into November, but was only 24/52 for the day. Before MSU’s late run in Happy Valley, more early indicators showed up and first put the issue onto the Spartan Nation radar. After Penn State you had to honestly begin to consider whether Brian Lewerke was developing a case of the yips?

Going into Michigan week the public did not know that Lewerke was physically dinged. The Spartans’ coaching staff did. Early last Saturday Lewerke’s physical issues became apparent as he struggled hard to complete passes and was not looking to run with the ball like usual. The result was a bottoming out for MSU Offense and for Brian Lewerke. Though he actually caught a Touchdown, he completed only 5/25 on the day and ended up with a shocking -11 yards rushing. A healthy Lewerke would’ve likely found dozens of rushing yards on at least a half dozen carries. He is not only the most talented running Quarterback in the Dantonio era, he is already the most accomplished. As the Offense limped towards Halftime you could tell that he probably should not have returned to start the second half. He should have been relieved for his own good and for the good of the team. He looked as physically limited and mentally flustered as he ever has at Michigan State.

The end result was a dark day when the yips issue went from barely on the radar to practically front and center. There wasn't enough of a difference in his velocity or arm motion to suggest any serious medical issue, and after the game such physical inquiries we pretty much written off by multiple parties. As Lewerke kept fighting to the end his penultimate pass sailed way over a receiver’s head, and his final pass looked to miss wide by nearly as large a margin. For the day it looked like Lewerke may have yipped as many as a dozen throws, at least one of which looked like a Touchdown pass that would have tied the game during the 3rd Quarter.

As blatantly as Lewerke struggled for as long as he was left in, where was Rocky Lombardi or another healthy body under center while MSU still had a shot to win the game? Where was Theo Day, or La'Darius Jefferson running more Option plays, and maybe even throwing a pass or two, as the Spartans watched ball after ball go incomplete. You don't get to 5/25 over a series or two, it takes a while. But make no mistake, all corners of the vast Spartan Nation as sure heck is hoping with all possible hope that Brian Lewerke is not developing the yips.

Whether or not he has the yips, the Spartan Offense should’ve been dealing with his throwing issues a lot sooner than they did. They failed to do much of anything last Saturday while MSU was still in it. As a result, the Spartan Offense hit an all-time low during the Mark Dantonio era. That’s right, worse than either Alabama loss, folks. All criticism of the Offense begins at the top with Mark Dantonio, to be fair, but all members of the staff on that side of the ball deserve criticism for MSU’s performance and nearly cruel decision to keep sending Lewerke back on the field after it was very clear that he could neither run nor throw effectively. That did not look fair to Lewerke or the team as a whole, but it did look pretty obvious in real time.

Earlier this week another theory about Lewerke’s throwing issues came from out of nowhere, in Ann Arbor. In what has been a very busy week for Jim Harbaugh talking about Michigan State Football, the former Quarterback took the bizarre step of commenting about an opposing player’s health on Monday, suggesting that a physical issue may be the cause of Lewerke's erratic streak. Harbaugh mused that, “…my eye, with no evidence of any MRIs or anything, I don’t think his shoulder is right. He’s throwing the ball like somebody who’s got a torn labrum. He just doesn’t have the pop on it.” That take goes in pretty firm contrast to what Lewerke and Spartan Coaches have said since the end of Saturday’s game. If a bad labrum was the cause of Lewerke missing so many routine passes by such a wide margin, however, that would be far better news than the early stages of a battle with the yips. Despite Joel Stave’s relative success managing them, a fight with the yips is not one that most Quarterbacks survive for very long at the highest levels of the sport.

Further compounding Lewerke's issues, MSU was asleep at the wheel again early this season in getting a backup Quarterback ready to play. While other top programs were rotating in young backups constantly, figuring out whether their backups could play at a high level, the Spartans Offense struggled to new lows. They blew valuable time in letting Lombardi, or anyone else, get in quality snaps while working through some of the early-nerves and experiences that have to be processed. From here let's hope that we see Lombardi, Theo Day, and maybe a bit of La’Darius Jefferson, unless he can work in at Wide Receiver too, taking more snaps under center. It's not much of a surprise that MSU had to pay a price for failing to fully prepare a backup to this point, but it is a verified disappointment. Given Lewerke’s condition and recent performance before the Michigan game, there was a decent chance the MSU Staff knew they might be in for a really long day against the Michigan Defense.

Moving the ball on the 2018 Michigan Defense was always going to be a challenge but MSU could have put themselves in a much better position to succeed by fully preparing their most important position on the field. Then when production was not there from Lewerke and he clearly was not himself, they could have adjusted well before the game was out of reach. If they actually had a plan for what to do if Lewerke got hurt or otherwise got wild, they failed to present it in due time on Saturday afternoon. To suggest in the post game interviews that Quarterback play was not the reason MSU lost to Michigan 21-7 was not an accurate statement. That was the primary reason the Spartans lost to Michigan last week.

Where have the traditional Option plays that beat Ohio State in 2015 with a pair of backup Quarterbacks run off to? Where were the plays that saved the Utah St. game, the kind that Glen Mason and Spencer Tillman called for in recent weeks, and the type that many in Spartan Nation have been waiting on since Jeremy Langford graduated? Where were the quick passes to get the ball out of the Quarterback’s hands before extreme pressure? Where was the Spartan Offense trying to go up tempo when the opportunity presented itself? Where was all of that and more from an Offense in desperate need of a jolt for more than the last month? Especially while MSU still had an outside shot to absolutely snatch the Big Ten East? Those are just some of the questions coming towards Mark Dantonio and the offensive coaching staff in the coming weeks, putting aside the elephant in the room for a brief moment. Everything should have been on the table for weeks now, yet not nearly enough hit that table in time for 2018.

The season's crossroads came and went a while ago now. Saturday was the result of just letting it pass by, with MSU choosing to stay with pretty much the same approach, getting a progressively worse overall result. And it's not getting any easier from here with the difficult elephant in the Quarterback room. The Spartans have to also shift into some important discussions with multiple players about whether they should take advantage of the new four-game Red Shirt rule. You would think that as many projected starters and key contributors as possible should probably utilize that rule. For some players that should look like playing one week, taking other games off, playing again, and then saving room for a Bowl Game. Before we get towards 2019 though, what about the rest of 2018?

The first thing this program has to do is figure out whether Brian Lewerke is developing the yips or if he is injured in a way that has made it look like he may have the yips. What MSU did with Lewerke last week should not be repeated. If his throwing issues are all injury related he should be off the field until he’s nearly 100% again, from head to toe. That means the Spartans need to make use of the time left to get a very good look at Rocky Lombardi and at least get some basic snaps in the bank for Theo Day, when convenient. While this may sound like a broken record, MSU really has no choice after what happened against Michigan. They have to figure out what else they have in their barn of highly recruited Quarterbacks.

This team features a capable Special Teams unit and another outstanding Defense, but they so badly have to address the real issues on their Offense that hit rock bottom out against Michigan. Making matters worse, of course, they lost even more key players to injury. If any of this sounds a bit harsh, take a look at some statistics. MSU starts the last week of October ranked 107th in Scoring Offense, 107th in Total Offense, 121st in Rushing Offense, and 102nd in Team Passing Efficiency. Those numbers cannot bode well for the future of the current staff on that side of the ball.

It is honestly starting to look like the time has come for Spartan Football to consider major and permanent changes to that staff. That is not something to be suggested lightly, but nor is it quite time to make a firm call for those changes to begin. That type of call was made in this space late during the 2015 season when it became clear that Spartans Special Teams needed new leadership. Injuries or not, the Spartan Offense has regressed this season beyond the point that their talent level, depth, and experience should have allowed. They did not look prepared at the start of the season up front, they fell back into the “Run-First Stubborn” philosophy that produced underachieving units for more than a couple years straight, and they failed as a staff to adjust to the obvious struggles of the 2018 Offense during the first half of the year. Those results are in ink now, and any leftover “free passes” should be long gone by the end of this year.

What's happened to the Spartan Offense in 2018 should be less than easily tolerated from a program positioned to mix it up with the elite as the decade comes to a close. If these results would not be acceptable at Alabama or Clemson, they should not fly at Michigan State. If this scenario would not be tolerated at Ohio State or Penn State, it should not be left to settle on its own at Michigan State.

The obvious reason the 2018 Spartans are not having the season many expected around the sport is their free falling Offense. That struggle is not really on the players, as highlighted last week. It is once again on the coaches. After the significant regression from the end of 2017, keeping in mind the rash of injuries and now the giant elephant in the room, what will this staff do about the stinging feeling they have right now? What will they do from here about the numbers we looked at above? They have been remarkably stubborn so far, which leaves things rather uncertain from here.

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