Rotation at Running Back Has Served Spartans Well During Playoff Run
Gerald Holmes, Madre London and LJ Scott have combined for 1,714 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns.
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
DALLAS – It should come as no surprise that Michigan State’s committee of running backs is collectively just a little envious of Alabama counterpart Derrick Henry.
Not his size or style, mind you, but his number – 26.
That’s how many times, on average, Henry has carried the ball for the Crimson Tide in each game this season.
It doesn’t tell the whole story, however, because Henry’s workload has increased considerably in the second half of the season en route to the College Football Playoff, where No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 MSU will meet in Thursday night’s CFP Semifinal in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium.
Henry has had 90 carries in his last two games alone – 46 in the regular season finale against Auburn and 44 in the SEC Championship Game versus Florida -- while the Spartans’ top three rushers, LJ Scott, Madre London and Gerald Holmes, have 140, 114 and 108, respectively, for the entire season.
Henry also had 38 attempts against LSU but no Spartan has had more than 22 in a game – Holmes against Nebraska and Scott against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game.
At Monday’s Spartan offensive press conference, London chalked the disparity up to a difference in philosophies, at least for this season.
“It would be nice to have 40-something carries, but that’s just part of their system,” said London, who has 489 yards in 10 games. “That’s awesome. But we’ve got a lot of running backs right now, so we’ve got to share the love. ”
Holmes is getting nine carries and 44.5 yards per game, but if multiplied by a factor of Henry, he’d be at 27 carries per game and 1,632 total yards.
“I would love to have that, but playing here, I’m prepared so that whenever I’m called to go in I’ll be ready,” Holmes said. “He’s prepared for 40 carries, so that’s what he knows. Us, when we’re in, we know we’ve got to grind. But that’s what tailbacks want – you want to be fed the ball.
“We really don’t know what the coach is thinking. So it’s about staying focused and being ready because I could play the whole game except for the last four minutes.”
Lately, co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman have been handling the tailback corps like a pitching staff with Holmes cast as the starter in the last six games, all three taking turns as setup men and Scott going in as the closer.
Holmes had a strong, 14-carry, 65-yard start in the pivotal game at Ohio State, but Scott got the save when he had 10 carries for 50 yards on MSU’s final two series to help flip field position and set up Michael Geiger’s game-winning field goal.
LJ Scott leads the Spartans with 691 rushing yards and 11 TDs.
Against the Hawkeyes, Holmes got things started with three carries for 13 yards and London covered 60 yards on 12 rushes, but Scott was the workhorse on the title-clinching 22-play scoring drive – the longest of the season in college football – that ended on his clutch, 1-yard reach across the goal line. Head coach Mark Dantonio often is the one acting as the manager, signaling to Warner who he wants out of the bullpen.
Spot reliever Delton Williams has just 24 carries for 50 yards, but could also figure more prominently in the rotation if he produces when his number is called.
Unlike Henry, who knows he’s going to get the lion’s share of carries (Alabama’s second-leading rusher, Drake Kenyan, has 347 yards on 72 carries), Michigan State’s backs never know who could lead the team in rushing. The uncertainty unnerved them earlier in the season when they found it hard to get in sync when they’re being replaced after one or two series, but they are used to it now, while pulling for whomever is carrying the ball.
“I’m always ready to go in,” said Scott, who has 691 yards (which could be 2,073 if he were playing by Alabama rules). “Everybody’s going to compete, but at the same time we’ve got to support one another and that’s all we do. I’m probably the closest to the other running backs than anyone else on the team.
“We’re a family and if it’s not like that, then things go wrong. I get a lot from Madre and Gerald. They’re running them down and I’m finishing. I never know how it’s going to be, but I’m just happy when I’m in.” London, who started the first six games before an injury opened the door for Scott’s only career start at Michigan, agreed that the camaraderie in the running backs meeting room is strong.
“I’m not going to be naïve about it,” London said. “Sometimes when you’re in the groove, and you’ve got to come out because it’s not your series, you feel like you want to keep going. But we’ve gotten accustomed to it and we’re just happy to see all our brothers playing their hardest and doing what they’re supposed to do.
“It’s just random – whoever’s series it is and whoever’s the hot man, really, is who they’re going to keep calling. I’m good with it, and I feel like they’re good with it. Any four of us can execute and make plays. When you get in, you’ve got to make a play because you’re only going to get so many opportunities. If somebody else makes a play, you might not even see the field again.”
Holmes said that while Michigan State’s approach is unconventional, it’s hard to argue with the results. Alabama got to the CFP with Henry running for 1,986 yards and the Spartans made it with Scott, London and Holmes combining for 1,714.
“It can be frustrating at times because we’re all hungry and everybody wants to be the guy to win the game and get the success,” Holmes said. “But at the end of the day I look at the bigger picture – it led us to here.
“I see what’s in front of us as a team and when your name is called, get the job done. In this game, we don’t even know who’s starting right now, but whoever it is, it will be great for him. We all can do everything. We all can catch, we all can run downhill, we all can make moves, we all can pretty much block. We’re all together. Being competitive and hungry is what keeps it going.”
The backs should know by now not to take the coaching staff’s decisions personally.
“We try to rotate guys in and give them a chance to get going early and then see who’s running the ball best,” Warner said. “And then, Coach Dantonio is always going to voice his opinion on who’s carrying the ball best from his standpoint there on the sideline and we’ll go with the guy we think has the hot hand.”
Dantonio went with his gut when he replaced London with Scott at the end of the Iowa game.
“Madre was running really well, too, and both those guys performed well,” Warner said. “It was just the situation to put him in there, but we never planned to keep (Scott) in there for 22 plays.”
At this point, the Spartans are committed to finishing the season with a rotation because changing now isn’t worth the risk.
“Sometimes a back can run this play a little bit better or can be a little bit better pass-blocker,” Bollman said. “Then amidst all that, you’re trying to get in situation of giving anything away by who’s in the game.”
With potentially two games left to play – the semifinal and the national championship game – Scott has an outside shot at getting 1,000 yards. However, based on how the carries have been distributed to this point, it appears likely that a Spartan back won’t reach that milestone for the first time in five seasons and just the third in nine campaigns under Dantonio.
However, just because Scott, London, Holmes and Williams are set to return next season, it doesn’t mean Warner and Bollman won’t continue to try to establish a featured back.
“I think it’s all a year-to-year kind of deal because in the past with Coach D’s programs, Le’Veon Bell was the wheelhorse and I think you would say Jeremy Langford was for the last couple years,” Bollman said.
“Maybe in the future one guy will rise up above some other people, but there’s great merit to playing more than one guy. Certainly, health-wise for them, freshness-wise for them, in a game, which are some good things, too.”