Spartan missed opportunities lead to 32-23 loss to U-M, still prevent predicted blowout
Playing into how the loss against the University of Michigan went Saturday, the lights above head coach Mark Dantonio shut off during his post-game press conference.
“That just figures, that’s the way day’s going right there,” Dantonio said, drawing some laughs.
In a fit of humorous irony, it wasn’t only a metaphor for the season, but one that underscored a lost season.
Eight games into the 2016 campaign and MSU has found itself in a shocking series of events. The Spartans jumped to a promising 2-0 start before flailing and thrashing their way to six straight losses. The latest loss, a 32-23 hard-fought loss to U-M, at first held the promise of a season-defining win, as if all the inadequacies of the last five weeks had subsided.
But in the end, it was the same mistakes and the familiar shortcomings that let a possible upset slip through the Spartans’ grasp. This effort in the weeks prior might have resulted in victories, but facing a daunting team with astute talent and the right pieces, MSU was just simply outmatched when it mattered most.
An offense only clicks away
The bloodbath many predicted never came. MSU’s anemic offense turned quick, opening holes for a hard-charging LJ Scott. The defense held U-M to only three points in the second half and curtailed promising U-M drives into abrasions instead of wounds.
The opening quarter ended tied 7-7, with MSU eating up 75 yards in 12 plays in 7:02 on the first possession. Scott ate up 11 of those plays behind 10 rushes and one reception, keeping the U-M defense largely off balance with swiftness and physicality.
“Our MO this week was we were going to run the ball on them, we were going to pound the ball on them,” fifth-year senior tight end Josiah Price said. “But we didn’t care how or what or why, and I think we showed that.”
MSU, however, flickered on the running game, largely charging down the field behind its backs. But even as the MO became the run game, MSU switched backs to Gerald Holmes on the next drive, giving the ball to Holmes.
“LJ carried the ball quite a few times on that drive so we probably rested him,” Dantonio said. “We were going to play two tailbacks a little bit, and that was an opportunity for Gerald to get the ball.”
The run game would fail on the opportunities it had to make a larger impact than just eating the clock and wearing the defense down, seemingly going to the well one too many times.
On a fourth and one from the U-M 38-yard line, an outside rush for Holmes was upended in the backfield. In the third quarter, Darian Hicks jumped a Wilton Speight throw, bringing it back to the U-M 33-yard line, but MSU let the opportunity slip from its grasp at the goal line.
Again calling on Scott, MSU lined up without splitting receivers out, imploring U-M to stop the run. U-M answered the call all four times on four straight runs, resulting in MSU losing two yards total.
“We were running the ball well on that formation leading up to that, and I thought we would get it in,” offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “There is a consideration for a pass every time, but right there we thought we could smash it in because we were doing a good job in that formation up to that time.”
MSU’s six trips to the red zone yielded only three scores.
The option of a pass never materialized and was not wholly consistent throughout the game. All three quarterbacks, possibly all nursing injuries now, took snaps in the game.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor started, was pulled but eventually replaced junior Damion Terry and redshirt-freshman Brian Lewerke in the fourth quarter.
“First of all, three scores down . . . I wanted the other two quarterbacks who are coming back next year to have a taste of this football game,” Dantonio said. “I thought it was very important for them to gain in game experience against U-M.”
O’Connor was 4-of-10 passing at halftime with 34 yards and an interception. Terry entered in the fourth quarter leading one drive that ended in a missed 34-yard field goal try. He left the game 0-for-4 passing.
Lewerke strung together a 6-for-10 performance in his relief effort of Terry. He found the end zone with a sharp pass to Monty Madaris, slicing the lead to 30-17. O’Connor came back into deliver the last drive, a four-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a Donnie Corley touchdown reception.
MSU’s offense, as improved as it was, left points on the board. In a rivalry game, in an upset bid, everything has to click. MSU got neither the right clicks nor the timing. In perhaps its best game of the season, its best was still underdeveloped.
“We were physical and we were tougher, and had many opportunities in that game,” O’Connor said. “We just needed to score more points than we did.”
Defense came too late
Producing a clip of nearly 50 points a game, the U-M offense had scored less than 45 points only twice: a 14-7 victory over Wisconsin and a 41-8 victory over Illinois.
On Saturday, it produced 27 in the first half, meeting a well-adjusted MSU defense coming out with an edge and “guys playing smarter.”
“For whatever reason, when those things were happening in the first half — communication and execution — whatever it may be, it wasn’t getting done,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “We talked about that at halftime and they came out and played a little better.”
U-M’s offense was quick behind a trove of running backs who created holes and opened up passing options. Nineteen rushing attempts in the first quarter delivered 6.8 yards a carry out of 129 yards.
“Both teams were having success with the run early, that got us going and set up quite a few things in the play-action game and the passing game and then our guys made plays,” U-M head coach Jim Harbaugh said.
U-M quarterback Speight was able to churn out 9-of-14 passing for 158 passing yards in the first half, finding targets with ease as the offensive line developed a deep pocket.
But as the second half got underway, MSU was able to create more penetration, forcing Speight out of the comfort of the pocket, allowing only 86 yards through the air and 63 on the ground.
The adjustments were too late, as U-M had done just enough to hang on offensively.
“I think it’s tough, we don’t have too many seniors on the defense so you’re dealing with younger guys, and that is always tough for them,” fifth-year senior linebacker Riley Bullough said. “Everyone has to know their job on every play, and I don’t think we did that, and I think Michigan took advantage of that, especially in the first half.”
Where do we go from here
For the first time since 2012, the Paul Bunyan Trophy heads back to Ann Arbor. After holding onto it for the greater part of a decade, MSU football finds itself at a crossroads. Two of the last three Big Ten titles reside in East Lansing, yet this season has called into question how a team with this coaching could slip so far.
This game meant more to Dantonio, as he stated earlier in the week that he’d always placed a larger emphasis on this game than the others.
MSU came with an edge, showing it meant business in a game in which they were overwhelmingly unfavored. It showcased what it could do, but even its most inspired effort was still short of victory.
“There aren’t any moral victories, just like I said before, so we’ve got to take it, but I think that you can feel good that you competed,” Dantonio said. “You can feel good that things went this direction.”
It’s a contrast of two coaching styles when comparing Harbaugh and Dantonio and how they treat the game.
“We treat every game like it’s a big game, we treat every game like it’s the championship game and fortunately our guys made the play today and the credit goes to the players, also the assistant coaches did a tremendous job,” Harbaugh said. “Really proud of everybody, all our staff and now it’s onward.”
MSU has little left to play for, as a bowl game would require defeating Ohio State University and then Penn State University on the road.
But MSU will continue to fight, as it so often has, but this year won’t come with anything meaningful, but maybe the answer lies in the future.
“I don’t think we have guys that quit,” Dantonio said. “I think our guys will play. We have enough young players that this is an exciting thing for them. Played a lot of freshman, a lot of young players, and I think they’ll earn their way.”