COLUMN: Even at its worst, it wasn't this bad; Michigan State's offense hits rock bottom
MADISON, Wis. — Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio walked up to the podium under the bleachers at Camp Randall Stadium, the tip of his nose pierced with red from the cold, and looking defeated as ever.
Most coaches would after what happened to the Spartans.
The first thing he did as he sat down was praise No. 8 Wisconsin for its job well done, beating his Spartans 38-0 in one of the most lopsided games under his watch in East Lansing.
Then, in the simplest of terms, explained what Michigan State didn't do to be successful against the Badgers.
“On the offensive side of the ball, you’ve got to be able to run the ball somewhat and you’ve got to be able to pass the football," Dantonio said following the loss. "You can’t turn it over and throw a touchdown. A pick-six, that just makes it even more difficult even though the score was sort of one way at that point.”
It sounds like a football 101 blueprint. Run the ball to keep the offense moving. Throw the ball to keep the defense guessing. Control the ball to keep the opposing offense off of the field.
All of which Michigan State failed at in Madison. Want to know how a team loses 38-0? Look no further than that.
In almost every single offensive statistical category, Michigan State failed.
So, lets look at the numbers.
Michigan State ran for 30 yards on 21 attempts against Wisconsin. Its highest rusher? Tyriq Thompson on a fake punt that gained 20 yards. Yep, a senior linebacker led the team in rushing on a trick play.
Michigan State passed for 119 yards, 66 of which came from Rocky Lombardi who came in midway through the fourth quarter.
Fifth-year senior Brian Lewerke finished 7-for-16 for 53 yards and an interception. That's it.
Michigan State turned the ball over twice — two interceptions. One by Lewerke, which got returned by Zach Baun for a 34-yard touchdown to put Wisconsin up 31-0. And one by Lombardi on MSU's final offensive play of the game.
“I saw him drop. It was a little too late when I tried to adjust the ball and throw a little to his left, or my left, a little farther maybe, hoping he couldn’t have got it, but he made a good play,” Lewerke said.
Michigan State held the ball for 20:50. But, 14 minutes of it came after the break. The Spartans ran a total of 18 plays for 38 yards before halftime.
And probably the most jarring, Michigan State's offense converted seven first downs — six of which came in the second half and gained a total of 149 yards. Jake Hartbarger, on the other hand, had nine punts for 388 yards. He more than doubled Michigan State's offense with his leg.
The final result can speak for itself. But the numbers, the hard evidence, backs it up.
Michigan State's offense is not working.
This is an offense that has hit rock bottom.
Now, don't take any credit away from the work that Wisconsin did defensively. This is the best defense on Michigan State's schedule. In its two home games against Michigan and MSU, the Badgers combined to win 73-14.
“It's what they’ve been doing all year," Dantonio said. "They do a good job in terms of giving you different looks as far as pressure ... They got good players coming off the edge, speed coming off the edge. They overload with some different types of blitzes. You know, they get on you.”
Michigan State also did a lot of things wrong on its own, no help needed from a stifling Badgers defensive unit.
If there was one singular drive that told the story of the Spartan offense, this would be it. When the Spartans found that sliver of hope that could propel them back into the game — only to get in their own way.
As they were all Saturday night, Michigan State's offense was in another third-and-long, down 17-0 on the opening drive of the third quarter. Third-and-13 to be exact from its own 33-yard line. Lewerke escaped the pocket and ran out of bounds after a gain of five yards.
So, the Spartans set up for a punt.
Dantonio dug deep into his bag of tricks to pull out that fake punt, and probably at the most opportunistic time for the Spartans. Thompson took the direct snap and ran downfield for a gain of 20 yards.
Maybe, this was the spark Michigan State needed. Then, Lewerke connected with Darrell Stewart Jr. for 11 yards a couple of plays later.
First-and-10 from Wisconsin's 27-yard line. Lewerke was sacked for an 8-yard loss by Chris Orr. Then, he was sacked again by Isaiahh Loudermilk for four more yards.
“First one, they covered it pretty well," Lewerke said. "I was trying to look for Darrell backside and the corner had bailed on him. The guy just inserted late. Second one, they dropped a guy. It was a mesh route and they dropped a guy right to the mesh guy ... the running back was covered and they just had everyone."
A substitution infraction backed the Spartans up five more yards.
First-and-10 from the 27 turned into third-and-27 from the 44. The Spartans, as imagined, punted two plays later. Dantonio said, with the score and field position in mind, he thought about going for it. But, a fourth-and-17 was simply too far.
This singular drive sums up everything there is to know about the Spartans' offense in its 38-0 loss to the Badgers — and maybe the entire season.
It's that outlook that the Spartan offense shows, maybe it is ready to turn a corner, before backing up two giant leaps — or in this case, sacks.
Going back to Week 2. The Spartans scored 51 points against Western Michigan. Then, followed it up with seven points the following week at home against Arizona State. MSU put together two pretty strong offensive showings against Northwestern and Indiana, but scored 10 points combined between Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Some of that is talent level. But a lot of it is the same execution problems that have plagued MSU's offense, really, dating back to last season.
Dantonio had a chance to bring in new blood, new ideas and new faces into Michigan State's offensive coaching staff. He decided after last season to roll with his guys. It's well known by now. He chose not to fire anybody.
He now has to live with this outcome.
In its three losses this season — Arizona State, Ohio State and now Wisconsin — all against ranked opponents, the Spartans scored a combined 17 points. None of which, of course, came against the Badgers, helping the Big Ten West's best team secure its fourth shutout this season.
So, following the game a reporter asked Dantonio about it. One, if he regrets not making changes. And two, how does the offense get fixed.
“I don’t think you talk about — I don’t think you ask those questions right now, we’re six, seven games into the schedule," Dantonio said. "I think that’s sort of a (explicative) question to be quite honest with you."
Dantonio won't put his staff on the spot. But the question itself has a lot of validity to it. By now, the results have not been flattering.
There was opening night when the Spartans only scored seven points against Tulsa. The aforementioned seven points against ASU. Then only 10 points against the Buckeyes.
And zero points against the Badgers.
Is Dantonio second-guessing himself?
A loss like the one MSU suffered Saturday night can do that to a lot of people — not just the head coach. It second-guesses the ceiling for this Spartan team. What looked like a veteran-led squad that could fight for a New Year's Six bowl game, may be fighting for a Florida bowl game.
But that brings us to the second point. Is there a way to fix it?
Time will tell. The Spartans go on bye week this week before they host their third-consecutive top 10 team in Penn State.
“I think it's just a good time to reflect, start fresh," Lewerke said. "It's a good time to have a bye week right now, for sure.”
There just isn't much time left.