Kalon Gervin produces mixed bag in first-ever start for Michigan State
There was a reason why Michigan State was missing a senior cornerback Saturday night against the Buckeyes.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said that fifth-year CB Josh Butler was hampered by a "slight" injury leading up to Saturday's game, forcing him to miss all of this past week's practices.
"Didn’t want to put him out there at the corner position and have something happen," Dantonio said during his Sunday night phone conference. "He played a little bit on special teams just to see how he would move."
Dantonio said he believes that Butler will be back next week when the Spartans travel to Madison, Wisconsin to play the eighth-ranked Badgers (3:30 p.m. EDT, 2:30 p.m. CDT, BTN).
So, with Butler limited, redshirt freshman Kalon Gervin got his first-career start against what might end up being the most talented group of receivers that Michigan State's defense will see this season.
There were some signs of strong play from the former four-star recruit out of Detroit. But, it came at the expense of tons of growing pains through the process.
Gervin got caught flat-footed on Ohio State's Binjimen Victor's 60-yard touchdown reception, when the senior receiver left the Spartan defender in the dust on an open-field move en route to putting Ohio State up 10-0.
“I thought Gervin did a nice job, but you got to tackle better," Dantonio said. "Missed a tackle on the big, long one, and it’s something that we work on daily, tackling. You can’t stop your feet in the middle of the field, in the deep part of the field. You can’t stop your feet and come to gather when the guy is running full speed at you. So, that 20-yard gain became a 60-yard gain, or whatever it was. That just can’t happen.”
Earlier in the first quarter, Victor beat Gervin off the line of scrimmage, but luckily for Michigan State, he dropped a rare pass in stride that may have resulted in another touchdown.
There wasn't any easing into play for Gervin agains the Buckeyes. And if Butler is not able to go next Saturday, it will be another tall task going up against the Badgers for the inexperienced defensive back.
“It’s his first time playing extensively like this," Dantonio said of Gervin. "He’s a good player, he’s got great speed. I think he’s one of our better tacklers, but it’s his first time out there. High intensity-type environment and with a lot on the line, so you have to give him a little bit of learning curve on those things.”
For the first time this season, the Spartans used a consistent five-man offensive line throughout Saturday's game against Ohio State. Tyler Higby stayed at left tackle with Luke Campbell at left guard, Matt Allen at center, Matt Carrick at right guard and Jordan Reid at right tackle.
Mostly, this was due to the lack of healthy bodies that the Spartans simply don't have right now. With Cole Chewins and AJ Arcuri's status still up in the air — neither of them dressed against the Buckeyes — Kevin Jarvis still sidelined with a leg injury, and now Blake Bueter, who left MSU's game against Indiana with an injury, MSU was left with no choice but to play with the healthy bodies it has at its disposal, or start burning redshirts, which Dantonio doesn't sound in favor of.
"We don't really want to burn a redshirt if a guy is going to play a couple plays," Dantonio said following MSU's 34-10 loss Saturday night. "Really, we've got three freshman, three true freshman with the twos."
Dantonio also didn't provide any specifics on defensive end Jacub Panasiuk when asked about his status. Panasiuk was carted off the field in the fourth quarter against the Buckeyes but did say that his status won't be a long term issue.
Dantonio has faced tons of great Ohio State teams in recent years. One being in 2013, when the Buckeyes — led by Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde — had national title aspirations before getting knocked off by Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game. And the 2015 team, led by J.T. Barrett, Michael Thomas and Ezekiel Elliott. Former quarterback Dwayne Haskins struggled a bit in his lone matchup against the Spartans but took Ohio State to the Rose bowl last season.
MSU's 13-year head coach didn't want to disrespect any of those powerhouse rosters. But, the Buckeye team that his program faced Saturday night was, as he said, right up with the rest of them.
"I feel like they have pieces on defense to play extremely well," Dantonio said. "They play about eight guys up front. Their linebackers are solid, can run, get off blocks. Their secondary is skilled. I was very impressed with four, No. 4 at the free safety position. Anticipates and breaks very well on the ball."
Michigan State's 20-yard touchdown from Brian Lewerke to Darrell Stewart Jr. was the Spartans' first house call since 2016 against OSU. And the Buckeyes have given up no more than 21 points in a game this season, giving up the most against Florida Atlantic in the season opener.
“Then on the offensive side of the ball, they have a big quarterback that can move, can extend plays and has arm strength, can take a bad play and make it a good one," Dantonio said. "Receivers are very capable. Offensive line was solid, and they got a running back that is an extremely good player. He can make a guy miss, can cut and just runs with power. So, they got the pieces.”
Sophomore Georgia transfer Justin Fields continued his mind-boggling start to the year, throwing for 206 yards, two touchdowns and his first interception of the season, while adding 61 yards and a score on the ground as well. Junior running back J.K. Dobbins added 172 yards on 24, 67 of which came on a back-breaking score to put the Buckeyes up 24-10 just before halftime.
Dantonio mentioned numerous times during the week prior to Saturday's game that Michigan State would need to play perfect for the Spartans to have a chance at pull the upset.
MSU got the exact opposite. The Spartan offense handed the ball over to the Buckeyes twice within four plays and an interception at the end of the game, while the defense wilted after a quick start.
Junior wide receiver Cody White lost possession near midfield when he came across the middle, and the Buckeyes scooped it up and immediately set up shop in MSU territory. Then, on MSU's second play of its next offensive possession, Lewerke pitched a screamer to Elijah Collins on the option that was too hot to handle, and OSU recovered again.
Luckily for the Spartans, the Buckeyes only turned it into three points. OSU wasn't worried. They added 24 more in the second quarter when MSU''s defense faded and forgot how to tackle.
On Dobbins' long touchdown run, Josiah Scott caught up to him at the MSU 20, but opted to punch the ball out instead of going for the tackle — which, judging by the final score, didn't work. The Spartans found themselves trailing 27-10 at the break and couldn't recover after halftime.
“You got to play perfect," Dantonio said. "We can’t drop balls. We can’t fumble when we have a catch. We can’t have an inadvertent pitch that’s fumbled. We can’t try to punch the ball out on a long run, we got to tackle the guy. We got to play through the whistle on the long one that was in question, did he fumble, did he not, we stand there looking at the ball and they dive on it. We can’t do those things. We have to finish the play. Consequently from a coaching perspective, we need to do a better job as well. It’s a team game. We got to be able to pick up the pieces and I’ll take responsibility. As I said last night, we’ll be defined by what we do next."