For all the Spartans have accomplished this year, between a bounceback from 3-9 and real aspirations of a Big Ten title, head coach Mark Dantonio has time and again made one aspect clear — MSU has not played its best game of the season yet.
Ahead of the showdown against Ohio State, he reiterated his point again. The Spartans hadn’t peaked yet, their best football was still ahead of them.
As the tune around East Lansing changes — courtesy of a 48-3 drubbing from Ohio State — the Spartans turned in the opposite of that complete, holistic effort. They left answers unfinished in their worst performance of the season, by far.
“We didn’t play well enough in any area to really make it a game,” Dantonio said. “That’s the bottom line. That’s what’s disappointing.”
The defense was never quite in tune during its performance. A squad that came in third nationwide in rushing defense — allowing just 87 yards per game — was skinned, gutted and beat down to the tune of 335 Buckeye yards rushing.
By halftime, the scoreboard read 35-3, a far cry from the nail-biting games Spartan fans had become accustomed to.
“When they kept scoring on us,” junior safety Khari Willis said of the game slipping away. “I feel like they did a good job in executing. They had the momentum, we just couldn’t get it back.”
On Ohio State’s first six possessions, the Buckeyes scored a touchdown on five of them. The one punt came after quarterback J.T. Barrett had trouble with the snap, resulting in a loss of 17 yards.
Though the opposition scored just 13 points in the second half, the damage had been done.
“We didn’t start fast on defense, which we have done,” Dantonio said. “Bad things starts to happen. That tests your confidence and everything else you’re doing.”
On offense, it wasn’t much better. A Matt Coghlin field goal as time expired in the first half was all the Spartans could muster on the scoreboard. Much like the defense, the offense sputtered in arguably its most important game of the season.
During MSU’s opening drive, quarterback Brian Lewerke was sacked twice for big losses, the latter of which forced the Spartans to punt. And with constant pressure from the Ohio State defense, the redshirt sophomore never found his rhythm.
“They would always spy,” Lewerke said of the Buckeye’s scheme. “So they’d have a guy waiting for me if I scrambled. And I wasn’t able to get away from him or the d-line."
Lewerke, after back-to-back weeks of throwing for over 400 yards, was largely ineffective. He completed 18 of his 36 attempts, including a pair of interceptions. The 131 yards throwing were a far cry from his record-setting games.
Neither the running or passing game stood out, as the balance Dantonio stresses between the two was nowhere to be found. Ohio native LJ Scott led the team with his 30 yards rushing on eight attempts, though with the low totals it’s easy to miss.
If there was one silver lining, it was punter Jake Hartbarger. The junior booted away eight punts for an average of 45.5 yards, three of those nestling inside the 20-yard line. Though, of course, special teams is just one aspect of the game, the other two sides of the ball scuffling.
The Spartans now return to East Lansing with a startling blowout loss on their resume. With just two games left in the regular season, their hopes of another trip to Indianapolis hang in the balance, swinging toward nothingness.
“We’re not going to Indy, but there’s other great things to do,” Willis said. “There’s still more to accomplish, there’s more to add to their resume, there’s still more games to play as far as guys trying to continue on.”