Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth was already having a big game. So, Sean Clifford decided to look his way again.
Holding a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, the Nittany Lions faced a crucial third-and-11 deep in their own territory.
Clifford looked to his tight end in the middle of the field. But, the pass fell to the ground. So did a bright yellow flag from an official.
Michigan State's defense was called for a defensive holding. And just like that a punt turned into an automatic first down. Ten plays later, Freiermuth and his quarterback got another chance, and this time they connected for a 19-yard touchdown to extend Penn State's lead to 13-0.
In Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio's eyes, that touchdown shouldn't have happened.
The Spartan defense should have been off the field after they forced a PSU punt. In recent years, that is usually how third downs have played out for MSU's defense.
In the Spartans' 28-7 loss to the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions Saturday afternoon, the "money maker" down was a big problem due to mental mistakes while the game was still up in the grabs.
“You look at our defense in the past two years. We were very good in third-and-long, I think especially last year we were pretty good in third-and-long," Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie said. "You know, third-and-long, you have to get off of the field."
On each of Penn State's three first-half touchdowns, a crucial mistake by MSU on third down or a simple conversion by the Nittany Lions offense kept drives moving— and eventually turned into points.
The two teams traded 3-and-outs on their opening possessions, but Penn State got on the board on its offense's next opportunity.
The Nittany Lions moved inside of Michigan State's 40-yard line. The Spartans had not one, but two chances to, at the very least, hold Penn State to a field goal attempt on a third-and-1 play. But, defensive tackle Naquan Jones jumped offside for automatic first down, and the possession moved on.
The drive continued when Clifford connected with K.J. Hamler on a third-and-6 for a 10-yard gain. On the ensuing play, Clifford connected with Freiermuth for a 16-yard score to give the Nittany Lions a 7-0 lead.
“Especially mental mistakes we can’t have, jumping offsides," Bachie said. "Physical mistakes will happen. You’re going to get a PI, you’re going to get a hold eventually at some point during the year. You can live with those, you can correct those. But mental mistakes we can’t have.
"You got to be focused. I thought we were. I thought all week we were damn near perfect in most of our stuff all week. When we were repping it, we weren’t jumping offsides. In the game we have to be locked in, we have to be focused, which I don’t doubt we were. Just probably excited to make a play or something, we just got to hold our water a little bit more.”
Michigan State punted back to Penn State on its next possession. Three plays later, the Spartan defense should've been off the field, but the defensive holding prolonged the drive. Penn State faced another third-and-11 later in the drive, but Clifford used his legs to get out of the pocket, and scrambled for a 14-yard gain to move the chains.
Two plays later, Freiermuth found the end zone for the second time in the half.
“I think holding is one of the most inconsistent things that I see across the country. If you looked at my expressions I don’t think I agreed with that one," Dantonio said. "The offsides is on us. We jumped off, they drew us off — you know, we jumped off."
Penn State's offense went back to work at their own 46-yard line after Shaka Toney blocked a Matt Coghlin 46-yard field goal attempt. This time, on a third-and-5, Michigan State's defense held the Nittany Lions one yard short. But PSU went for it on fourth down and picked up the yardage on a 1-yard carry by running back Journey Brown.
Another chance to get off the field was wasted. Four plays later, Clifford found Hamler wide open for a 27-yard touchdown pass. The sophomore quarterback added the 2-point conversion to grow Penn State's lead to 21-0 with a minute before halftime.
And with the continued struggles that Michigan State's offense had putting points on the board, a three-score lead was more than enough.
The Nittany Lions converted two of its five third-down attempts in the first half but also used two Spartan defensive penalties to prolong possession that led to crucial touchdowns.
“On the field it doesn’t seem like that big of a play because we’re playing and we want to keep playing, but in film you realize those little precious moments where we could have been off of the field and maybe the offense could’ve done something better,” Raequan Williams said.
Michigan State's defense was hurt most on its "money maker" plays. Getting off of the field on third down has been a staple of Spartan defenses during Dantonio's tenure.
And the Spartans know they need to get back to that philosophy to keep opposing offenses out of the end zone.
“It's nothing that they do that’s beating us. It’s what we’re doing," senior safety David Dowell said. "That's been a focal point for us the whole season. The defense, we can’t beat ourselves on defense. The only thing we can do is continue to work on those things. You can’t just roll over and die, you can’t just fold. So, we’ll continue to work on those things and we'll be better coming into Illinois.”