MSU football youth delivers team to cusp of upset
For the greater part of the 2016 MSU football campaign, two things were certain: uncertainty and criticism.
No position, no personnel, no coach, no decision seemed to get by unscathed.
The answers, just like the questions, were ambiguous. What was the root of the problem?
The value of experience was overlooked; youth was touted as the flag bearer for the losing streak. Play calls were criticized. Self-inflicted wounds cost MSU the inches it needed to secure a win.
It was all a byproduct of youth.
Against Ohio State, MSU started four freshmen and two sophomores on defense. On offense, sophomore LJ Scott led the way.
Heavily determined to be the vast underdog, MSU football opened with a swift gut punch to the Buckeyes, going 75 yards for a score in two plays in 46 seconds.
Scott sprung free on the edge, taking the reverse screen pass 65-yards to the end zone before a defender could touch him.
Scott had long been heralded the top back, receiving the bulk of the starts this season and being a part of key moments in the season prior.
He gashed holes in the Ohio State defense, hitting gaps and churning through the second level for 160 yards rushing, 76 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
“I knew I had to have a big game today,” Scott said. “I had to hear from fans, ‘I bet you wish you came to Ohio State.’ That is not the case.”
Scott led the team in receiving yards, followed by freshman receiver Donnie Corley, who had 23 yards on two receptions.
Passing was a premium in another MSU-Ohio State matchup in which weather curtailed game plans.
Between quarterbacks Damion Terry and Tyler O’Connor, the team was a combined 8-of-21 for only 127 yards.
“I think (the) key thing to the game obviously was their ability to play defense when we had the wind, or when I thought we had the wind — I’m not sure which way that stuff was blowing sometimes,” head coach Mark Dantonio said.
But even with Ohio State’s staunch defense, it was MSU’s own, championed by a young defensive line that kept Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and running back Mike Weber in check.
Mike Panasiuk had been the talk of the summer in certain instances, as Dantonio mentioned in summer ball that he’d see some playing time.
He emerged the starter at defensive tackle and wound up with seven tackles including half a sack.
Others along the defensive line included sophomore Dillon Alexander, freshman Josh King, freshman Auston Robertson, redshirt-freshman Raequan Williams and sophomore Robert Bowers.
Alexander recorded three tackles, one for loss. Robertson had one and Bowers had five, including a half-sack.
Combined, non-seniors recorded 56 tackles, including 29 from sophomores and freshmen.
Panasiuk contributed the success to “wanting to bring the heat.”
Co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett called it “will and want to” that finally broke out of a shell.
“We’re playing a lot of players in there, and their level of play is rising,” Dantonio said. “And we’ll have some other players come along because we have some guys that haven’t played that are good football players as well.”
The defense held an offense averaging 45-plus points a game to 17 points.
Though both Barrett and Weber rushed for more than 100 yards, the numbers seemed minuscule compared to past numbers put up.
The defensive effort was enough to deliver MSU to the cusp of a win and drew the praise of the veterans who fell short of leaving Spartan Stadium for the last time with a win.
“It is always good to see young guys want to get better every day in practice,” fifth-year senior linebacker Riley Bullough said. “You want to learn, and that is what these guys have done. To be an older guy to mentor them and help bring them along, that has been special for me, too.”
The future will lie in Scott’s hands and the young defensive line, which stepped up in a game that needed its best.
“As a young group, we wanted to make a name for ourselves,” Panasiuk said. “We are the future so we wanted to come out with a win today, which we couldn’t do, but we definitely made some plays and made a name for ourselves.”