Sunday, February 25, 2024

Bulldogs upset Spartans in last 2 seconds, 20-19

Sophomore wide receiver Agim Shabaj misses a pass during the second quarter Saturday at Spartan Stadium. After leading for the for the entire game, the Spartans collapsed to Lousiana Tech in the final three minutes. MSU lost 20-19. —

Like two war-torn generals meeting after a battle, Jeff Smoker hobbled over to Luke McCown to congratulate him after MSU was beat by Louisiana Tech on Saturday in the final minutes.

Though he watched his team lose a 12-point lead in the final minutes from the sidelines, Smoker, on crutches, was still smiling as he and McCown met for the first time.

The two senior quarterbacks shook hands and Smoker told McCown he led his team to a "heck of a comeback."

The Spartans never trailed in the game until the final two seconds, after McCown completed an 11-yard pass to wide receiver D.J. Curry in the end zone. Smoker had to watch the Bulldogs come back and win 20-19 from the sidelines for the entire second half after suffering a toe injury in the second quarter.

"I wanted to be on the field so bad, but I couldn't," Smoker said.

Sophomore running back Jaren Hayes recorded MSU's first rushing touchdown of the year and the Spartans' only touchdown of the game 10 minutes into the first quarter. But it took the Bulldogs less than 30 seconds to tie the game back up at seven apiece after McCown connected with wide receiver Shawn Piper for a 76-yard score.

It looked again as if MSU's defense, notably the secondary, would suffer against a spread-offense team. The team faced similar difficulties in the Spartans' first two games of the season. Western Michigan recorded 333 passing yards against MSU in the intrastate, season-opening match, while Rutgers - predominately a rushing team that finished 1-11 last season - gained 266 yards in the air.

Yet neither team managed another touchdown until the last minutes of the fourth quarter. Junior kicker Dave Rayner scored four field goals for the Spartans from 51, 49, 37 and 30 yards, respectively. Rayner missed three other attempts though, from 51, 49 and 34 yards.

Rayner said the 34-yard miss was caused by poor play-operation.

"The snap wasn't great, the hold wasn't great and the kick wasn't great," he said.

For the third straight game, MSU led its opponent in penalty yards, including a face mask by senior defensive end Greg Taplin, which set up the winning Louisiana Tech touchdown. The Spartans were flagged for 10 penalties totaling 80 yards.

But other statistics swayed in the Spartans' favor in their first-ever matchup with the Bulldogs. MSU committed no turnovers, while forcing two fumbles and intercepting three passes. The Spartans also out-rushed the Bulldogs by 108 yards.

So what went wrong?

"I just think we gave them that game," Rayner said. "The offense wasn't playing great but we got enough points. But we had too many stupid penalties and mental mistakes."

Senior guard Paul Harker said Louisiana Tech received an early holiday present from the Spartans.

"We took the game, wrapped it up in some real nice paper, put a nice big bow on it, paid for the postage and everything and overnighted it to them," Harker said.

But sophomore wide receiver Agim Shabaj said the loss might end up having a positive twist for the Spartans.

"I think it will prepare us for the games to come," Shabaj said. "No losses are easy to put away, but coach told us it's over with and we can't do anything about it.

"Notre Dame comes up next, and we need to be ready to play them."

Jon Malavolti can be reached at malavol2@msu.edu.

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