AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING (AP) — In a season opener that was otherwise unimpressive for Michigan State, running back LJ Scott was a bright spot.
It wasn’t just how far he carried the ball — but how often.
Scott ran for 105 yards on 20 carries in Michigan State’s 28-13 victory over Furman on Sept. 2, staking an immediate claim as the top running back for the 12th-ranked Spartans. His performance was significant because last year Scott split carries almost evenly with Madre London and Gerald Holmes. That wasn’t the case against Furman.
“It made a big difference,” Scott said. “I was able to catch my rhythm, and I was hungry for the ball. I was calling for it every time.”
The Spartans have this weekend off before playing at Notre Dame on Sept. 17. They have a lot to work on after a penalty-filled opener, and it remains to be seen how the running game will fare against tougher competition.
Scott ran for 699 yards as a freshman in 2015 on a team-high 146 carries, but London had 119 rushing attempts and Holmes had 110. The rotating system was a bit of a change for Michigan State, which leaned on running back Jeremy Langford the previous two seasons and Le’Veon Bell before that.
In 2012, Bell had 382 carries, the third-highest season total in school history.
Last season, the Spartans were content to have their backs share the rushing load. Scott reached 20 carries only once — in the Big Ten title game against Iowa. In the final minute of that game, he reached the ball over the goal line to cap a 22-play drive that sent the Spartans to the College Football Playoff.
It wasn’t a surprise to see Scott start against Furman, but London had only five carries and Holmes didn’t have any. That was a bit unexpected.
“I think we go with the productive player and the productive situation at every time,” coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. “I’m never going to say we’re not going to use three. If we can get people in rhythm, I think that’s good. Guys come out — we didn’t want to have three guys come out with eight carries apiece, or even nine apiece. We wanted to make sure that we somewhat had the majority.”
Michigan State’s running game may be scrutinized more this year because the Spartans have a new starting quarterback. Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor has taken over after backing up Connor Cook for the previous three seasons.
Michigan State had 40 rushes and only 18 pass attempts against Furman. The Spartans never trailed in the game, so there wasn’t much pressure to try to score quickly.
But O’Connor actually ended up with Michigan State’s second-most rushing attempts with six. Scott was the only running back who had the ball on a consistent basis.
“My plan was to play three running backs,” offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “But LJ was playing the majority.”
He scored a touchdown on the first drive after the Spartans marched down the field. After that, Michigan State stuck with him instead of worrying about spreading opportunities around.
So as the Spartans move on to tougher opponents, Scott appears to have quite an opportunity. If Michigan State wants to identify one top running back and give the most carries to him, that figures to be Scott’s job to lose.
“I think that he’s earned the starting position, and I think that he’s earned to be kind of the lead guy,” Warner said. “He’s done that most especially throughout this camp in August.”
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