Column: Spartans can no longer afford sluggish starts
Junior running back Le’Veon Bell watches the game from the sidelines as MSU plays Indiana on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 6, 2012, at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind. Bell had his third 100 yard rushing game of the season helping the Spartans beat the Hoosiers, 31-27. Natalie Kolb/The State News
Bloomington, Ind. — At halftime in Memorial Stadium Saturday afternoon, the Spartans’ Rose Bowl dreams were on life support.
Trailing Indiana 17-0, the offense rallied to bring MSU within three, but the Hoosiers quickly scored on a six play, 65-yard drive.
After a personal foul by junior defensive end Denzel Drone, the Hoosiers recovered an onside kick and drilled a 19-yard field goal, putting Indiana up by 10 just before halftime.
The whole sequence took less than six minutes.
You might have expected MSU head coach Mark Dantonio to take a page out of Bobby Knight’s book and throw a chair onto the field; it would have been understandable.
However, the players said the locker room atmosphere was quiet and concentrated. And Dantonio could see the difference in the second half.
“I thought at halftime the players refocused, and did a great job setting the tone in the locker room for themselves and rallying back,” he said.
And it worked. MSU’s (4-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) defense held the Hoosiers (2-3, 0-2) to 37 total yards on offense while the offense scored 17 unanswered points to squeak by 31-27.
MSU’s season was saved, and it hurt so good. For now.
Indiana exposed major flaws in MSU’s defense that will hurt the Spartans moving forward into Big Ten play. By running the no-huddle offense, the Hoosiers were able to put 27 points on the board with each scoring drive lasting less than three minutes apiece.
Indiana quarterback Cameron Coffman looked like a star in the first half, completing 23-of-30 passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns while the Spartans struggled to catch their breath.
It wasn’t that MSU was unprepared. Each player said the team had practiced for it, and was expecting the quick flurry of plays to begin the game. But when game time rolled around, the defense could not catch up to the speed of the game.
“In practice we simulated it to the best we could, but when we came out here it was a whole different ball game,” redshirt freshman linebacker Taiwan Jones said.
Although MSU eventually pulled out a victory, six games in, the Spartans shouldn’t find themselves surprised by the speed of the game anymore. Credit goes to Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson for executing an excellent game plan — the former Oklahoma offensive coordinator kept MSU on its heels for the first thirty minutes of the game.
But Wilson may have said it best himself after the game; “You’re not going to beat good teams if you don’t play 60 (minutes).”
And as true as that rings for the Hoosiers, it rings even truer for MSU.
While the Spartans eventually caught up to the tireless Hoosiers, they were forced to dig themselves out of a halftime deficit for the fifth time in six games this season. It’s a dangerous trend that will come back to bite MSU if it continues into Big Ten season.
The Spartans simply can’t rely on second half comebacks against the Big Ten’s elite. Against the Hoosiers — who came into the game ranked dead last in the Big Ten in total defense — it can work.
But as the Spartans face a stretch that includes Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska, they’ll need to buckle down and score early.
Or else that hole might be too deep to climb out of.
MSU can no longer to afford to come out flat. Because if they do, those roses they plan on celebrating with at Lucas Oil Stadium in December may wind up being laid on the grave of the Spartans’ 2012 season instead.
Jesse O’Brien is a State News football reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com.