Sunday, April 21, 2024

Turnovers, poor play sink now-unranked Spartans

Junior offensive tackle Steve Stewart rests his head on his hand near the end of their game Saturday against California at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans lost 46-22. —

In their first national television appearance of the season, the Spartans showed they might not be worthy of a high national ranking.

Thanks to the 46-22 rout at the hands of an unranked California (3-0) squad on ESPN2, everyone knows how the former No. 15 MSU (2-1) stacks up. MSU is now unranked.

“I’m just disappointed more than anything,” junior wide receiver Charles Rogers said. “Cal came in here on our home field and beat us, and they beat us pretty good.”

More telling than the final score was the way the Spartans played - sloppy and undisciplined.

Offensively, MSU twice had first-and-goal situations inside the Cal 5-yard line. But the Spartans wasted both first quarter opportunities due to turnovers.

On the first, senior tailback Dawan Moss fumbled the ball, which the Golden Bears recovered. On the second, junior quarterback Jeff Smoker threw an interception. Even a simple field goal in either situation could have changed the entire game.

But slow starts like Saturday’s have plagued MSU all season as it has posted just 14 first quarter points through three games.

The Spartans also committed nine penalties for 86 yards. The most costly was a holding penalty in the second quarter that resulted in a safety, which gave Cal a 9-0 advantage.

The Golden Bears opened the scoring on a 90-yard punt return in the first quarter, which demonstrated the Spartans inabilities on special teams.

Cal returner Jemeel Powell could have been tackled for no gain, but MSU failed to showcase good fundamental tackling. The result was a 7-0 Golden Bears’ lead.

As if the offensive turnovers weren’t enough to suffocate the Spartans, two fumbles on kickoff returns helped keep the offense from establishing any sort of momentum in the first half by keeping it on the sidelines.

“We didn’t do anything today,” Spartan head coach Bobby Williams said. “We never even showed up.

“We didn’t coach, we didn’t play, we didn’t do anything.”

The only positive note for the Spartans was the play of their defense in the first half.

Yes, the halftime score was 25-0 in favor of Cal, but the defense looked good. Despite playing on a turnover-shortened field, it held the Golden Bears to three field goals and the only touchdown came on a trick play - a wide receiver pass back to the quarterback.

“The defense tried to keep us in the game as long as they could, but they got tired as well by being on the field a lot,” Rogers said.

Rogers’ sentiments became obvious in the second half as routine plays were blown time and time again as the Spartans failed to make tackles.

At the start of the second half the MSU offense looked sharp, scoring 14 straight points to climb within 11 of Cal. But on the first play of its next possession, a tipped ball resulted in Smoker’s second interception. He finished the game 16-of-33 for 206 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Aside from the turnovers and poor special teams play, the numbers for MSU and Cal are comparable. The Spartans gained 352 total yards to Cal’s 381. The Spartans rushed for 125 yards to Cal’s 153. The Spartans passed for 265 yards to Cal’s 246. The Spartans had 24 first downs to Cal’s 23.

But MSU couldn’t make up for its five turnovers, as Cal committed just one.

“You’re going to have ups and downs in a game,” senior free safety Thomas Wright said. “We just had a lot of downs.”

Wright admitted the Spartans are playing like an “average team” so far.

But with No. 12 Notre Dame, who defeated then No. 7 Michigan 25-23 on Saturday, coming to East Lansing this weekend, Wright said MSU can’t dwell on the loss.

Spartan fans booed the team most of the afternoon, and forcing the team to stay on the field a little longer hopefully served as message to just how bad they played.

“It’s better for us to lose now than later,” Wright said. “It’s a learning experience.

“We’re going to be back.”

It’s good to know seniors like Wright realize the situation, but how well the younger players catch on won’t be seen until the Fighting Irish take the field in Spartan Stadium.

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