Not just turnovers: Penalties, execution culprits in blowout loss
Looking solely at the stats, MSU didn’t have a bad night. The green and white out gained Notre Dame in total yards 496-355. The Spartans had the ball far longer than Irish, too, for about 34 minutes of the game compared to Notre Dame's 26.
Even the rushing attack, a vaunted core that gathered over 500 yards against Boston College, was held in check, amassing 182 yards rushing.
All in all, the home team had to have a good game. Right?
Well, not quite.
“Statistics can lie to you,” head coach Mark Dantonio said after the game.
He continued to name a number of issues he thought his team needed to improve. The turnovers, too many opposing yards per rush, the defense’s inability to get off the field on third downs — it was like a long grocery list.
The end result? A 38-18 blowout loss in arguably MSU's first test of 2017.
Turnovers were undoubtedly a problem, a 3-0 margin that would prove to be insurmountable. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story, that was just a piece to the puzzle. A big one, mind you, but a piece nonetheless.
The bright yellow penalty flag haunted MSU’s chance of victory; the officials penalized the Spartans nine separate times for 97 yards.
It was another problem Dantonio had with his team. One of the underlying stats that might “lie,” in other words.
“Penalties are something we have to be more disciplined in,” linebacker Andrew Dowell said. “I had one penalty today, too, I could’ve avoided it. Coach D will put the penalties up on the board. We’ll look at them as a team so everybody sees them. We’ll make them a thing of emphasis.”
On the flipside, the defense had its bright spots — only at times, though. Missed tackles and an inability to get off the field at crucial times frustrated fans.
The Irish blitzed out to an early 7-0 lead not even two minutes into the game. Just seven plays and 78 yards later, Notre Dame introduced itself to an unexpected Spartan crowd.
Quarterback Brandon Wimbush had impressive throws to start the game. And after a 16-yard scamper to score the first touchdown, the Irish were off.
“We got to be better,” Dowell said. “Once they got up a little bit, we knew they were going to pound the rock. We knew the QB was explosive and a lethal threat. We lost contain on him a few times. We have to be better as a defense and better as a team.”
Dantonio himself said it best. While the Spartan defense only allowed 182 yards rushing, the attempts were low. Tailback Josh Adams ran for 56 yards on just nine carries. That comes out to an average of 6.2 per rush.
Same story with Wimbush, his average of 6.5 yards per rush slightly edging Adam’s.
Entering the game, linebacker Chris Frey called Wimbush a “capture” guy, meaning he has the ability to break out of the pocket to make a big play. It was part of the game plan, but the Spartans simply failed to execute and contain the quarterback.
“We knew what they were doing a lot of the time, and we just failed to make plays,” Frey said. “Turned the ball over way too much. On top of that, they made their plays and they were able to drive the field on our defense.”
There’s no denying the Spartans a tough loss. Fans filed out quickly and mercilessly as the deficit grew larger. The “Stripe the Stadium” started off strong, but quickly grew to spotty fragments by the end of the game.
However, Dantonio and his players stressed the season as a week-to-week affair. And with Big Ten play opening up next week against Iowa, it’s the next step.
“We’re not broken,” Dantonio said. “We’ve played two good football games. There are times in this football game where it looks like we’re gonna make a play and something happens. But you got to execute and you got to execute consistently.”