Column: Utah State showed MSU has potential short, long-term issues
Michigan State’s 38-31 win against Utah State Friday night was a typical season-opening win for coach Mark Dantonio’s program.
The eleventh-ranked Spartans have only covered the spread on Friday night openers once in seven games under Dantonio.
So a seven-point victory against a team which went 6-7 last year isn’t surprising.
“Well I really think that if you go back over the course of our program here, we've won a lot of close games, especially opening games,” Dantonio said. “That's just been the nature of it. I can't sit there and say why but we've won a lot of close football games.”
However, Utah State exposed some issues for MSU — some temporary and some long term.
Short term, the Spartans need to figure out how to slow down up-tempo offenses. The Aggies were able to fatigue the defense, putting up 31 points and scoring just over two minutes into the game, despite the preparation linebacker Joe Bachie said they had all week.
“We prepared hard this week, and you know they had a great game plan,” the junior said. “They attacked us very well.”
The Aggies did, as quarterback Jordan Love went 29-of-44 for 319 yards, while running it in for the first touchdown of the game. Although Love did throw two interceptions - one to safety Khari Willis in the first quarter and a game-ending pick to Bachie - coaches and players were impressed with his performance.
“From last season on, when you watch them, when you watch No. 10, He threw a very, very good ball and he was poised in the pocket,” Dantonio said.
And guess what? MSU will basically be facing a more experienced Love Saturday night in Arizona State’s Manny Wilkins, who was an All-Pac 12 honorable mention in 2017 and went 16-of-24 for 237 yards and four touchdowns, while running for 28 yards against UTSA on Sept. 1.
Add that in with ASU’s preseason AP All-American wide receiver N’Keal Harry, who caught six passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns against UTSA, and running back Eno Benjamin, who ran 16 times for 131 yards with a rushing and receiving touchdown.
The Spartans also need to figure out how to substitute faster, reduce fatigue and prevent the Sun Devils from getting in a rhythm.
But a possible long-term problem on MSU’s offensive line, however, is where the real concern lies.
The offensive line looked in disarray Friday night. On the first drive of the game, sophomore offensive tackle Jordan Reid missed an initial run block on the third play and allowed Utah State linebacker Tipa Galea’i to go almost untouched to sack quarterback Brian Lewerke and force a Matt Coghlin 49-yard field goal, a career-high for the sophomore.
The next MSU possession, the Spartans drove it down to the 1-yard line. On third-and-goal, offensive tackle Luke Campbell - who started at left tackle in place of injured starter Cole Chewins - committed a false start, and on the very next play, blocked the wrong guy, allowing Utah State to sack Lewerke which forced a 32-yard field goal by Coghlin.
All those penalties turning possible touchdowns in the red zone into field goals were “disappointing,” Dantonio said.
“We just got to clean up some of our mistakes that are correctable and there were a lot, I don't know how many or what our yardage was for penalties, but too much,” Dantonio said. “Some of them you might argue with or argue against but it really doesn't help out on the field. You've got to play through it.”
On the third drive, Tyler Higby moved out to left tackle, Campbell went back to right tackle - where he started 12 games in 2017 - and center Matt Allen took over.
Higby knew the offensive line wasn’t getting it done in the first half, which made Dantonio juggle people in and out for the remainder of the game.
“Obviously in the first half we could tell we weren't getting a huge push, some guys were falling off blocks and making tackles in the hole where they shouldn't be,” Higby said.
But, Higby thought, the second half went better.
“We made an emphasis to run the ball and leave gaps sound and do what we were talking about doing all week, we didn't really do in the first half,” Higby said. “In the second half we kind of buckled down and did what were supposed to do, and I felt like it would open things for us.”
Not to co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner, however, who was “disappointed with what our run game produced.”
“We decided at halftime we needed to continue with a little bit of our inside zone and try to get a little more of a push inside,” Warner said. “It still didn't happen in the second half. We had opportunities in the first half to get the ball outside and we screwed up some signals, some motions … we shot ourselves in the foot a couple times.”
Until the offensive line can settle in, be more consistent and limit the dumb penalties, MSU could have trouble with tougher teams later in the season.