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Dantonio: We have to close it out; MSU defense falters on final drive

September 16, 2019
<p>Coach Mark Dantonio runs out with his team to start the game off against Arizona State. The Spartans fell to the Sun Devils, 10-7, on Sept. 14, 2019 at Spartan Stadium.</p>

Coach Mark Dantonio runs out with his team to start the game off against Arizona State. The Spartans fell to the Sun Devils, 10-7, on Sept. 14, 2019 at Spartan Stadium.

Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

Jayden Daniels and Arizona State's offense set up on fourth-and-13 from Michigan State's 28-yard line with the game on the line. The 18th-ranked Spartans' defense shut down the Sun Devils all afternoon. One more stop would get the job done.

The play was double-seams, but no receiver got open. So, Daniels took off to towards the sideline. As MSU linebacker Joe Bachie chased him, Daniels was able to gain 15-yards before being pushed out of bounds to extend the drive.

"I was able to see it go, and I knew once he tucked in, he was committed," Bachie said following the loss. "That’s what he’s done on film all season. Once his first or second option wasn’t there, he was going.” 

Four plays later, Eno Benjamin scored from 1-yard out to give ASU a 10-7 lead with under a minute to go.

RELATED: The final minute in the eyes of Michigan State

Despite its dominance for more than 55 minutes in Saturday's game, MSU Head Coach Mark Dantonio was unhappy with the way his defense finished. On their final possession, the Sun Devils drove over 70 yards — in part to a 40-yard reception from Daniels to Brandon Aiyuk after Josh Butler stumbled — before Daniels used his legs to give ASU one last shot at saving the game.

“He got loose," Dantonio said Sunday afternoon on his teleconference. "We turned our back on the ball. We sunk too deeply, and we didn’t know where we were at on the field and didn’t understand the situation. He made a play."

MSU's defense recorded four sacks and seven tackles for loss Saturday afternoon. But as stout as they were, they crumbled in the final minute.

Daniels opened the drive with two 5-yard completions to Kyle Williams and Benjamin before he connected with Aiyuk to quickly move into Spartan territory. Daniels found Aiyuk again for two yards on the following play, before two incompletions and a false start set up the fourth-down play.

One last stop would have ended the game.

“Disappointing, very disappointing," Dantonio said. "They had 148 yards of offense prior to that last drive. But, we have to close it out.”

MSU's offense only scored seven points, missed three field goals, failed to convert on numerous possessions that crossed midfield and didn't provide much help to their defensive teammates. But, players on the Spartans' defensive unit didn't use that as an excuse.

In their eyes, they didn't make the winning plays — especially in the final minute.

“It shows that it’s a game of inches," Raequan Williams said. "We have to complete all of those inches.” 

Darrell Stewart Jr. emerging as top target

MSU's offense stood with their backs on the cusp of their own end zone. Already trailing 3-0 midway through the third quarter, the Spartans had a critical third-and-11 from their own 3-yard line. That's when Stewart came to save the day.

Brian Lewerke fit a pass between three defenders. Stewart climbed the ladder and brought the ball down with one hand to move the chains.

RELATED: Missed opportunities cost MSU's offense in loss to ASU

It was one of the many highlight plays that Stewart made for the second week in a row as he's quickly becoming one of Lewerke's top targets.

“Played very confidently, catching the ball very well, and he’s had a lot of big plays," Dantonio said. "Almost had a huge play at the end of the game to break it. It was close.”

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A week ago, the senior receiver from Houston set a career-high with 10 catches for 185 yards and a touchdown against Western Michigan. He followed that up with a team-high nine receptions for 121 yards against the Sun Devils — including a 25-yard reception that gave the Spartans a chance at a game-tying field goal with 11 seconds remaining.

Through three games, Stewart is just 51 yards off of last season's total when he caught 48 passes for 413 yards and one touchdown.

“He’s more motivated," Lewerke said of Stewart. "Obviously he’s playing his butt off right now. ... He’s one of the go-to guys for me right now.” 

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