ANN ARBOR, Mich. — All it took was one scrum before the referees drew a line in the sand. Early in the second quarter of Saturday's game with the score tied at seven, Michigan defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, which gave Michigan State a first down.
The Spartans moved over midfield and had a chance to reclaim the lead. After the penalty, the Wolverines' defense took note that the rest of this game was going to be called close.
Michigan State didn't get the same memo.
Two plays later, Cody White used some nifty escapability to turn a screen-play headed for nowhere into a 20 yard gain and inside the Michigan 40-yard line. White, however, was called for unsportsmanlike conduct at the end of the play. 15 yards. So was offensive lineman Luke Campbell. 15 yards.
Just like that, the Spartans were back at their own 33-yard line and a scoring chance went by the wayside as they ultimately had to punt at the end of the possession.
“The refs were being touchy about the calls, and respectfully so," fifth-year quarterback Brian Lewerke said. "They wanted to keep it safe in a rivalry game like that. It was maybe, guys just going at it, but they called it.”
That moment was just another instance on a list of problems the size of a CVS reciept that Michigan State had against its in-state rival in the 14th-ranked Wolverines' 44-10 win in The Big House. When things started to take a turn for the worse for MSU, it couldn't get out of its own way.
The Spartans finished with seven penalties for 93 yards, 30 of which came on that single play alone. The rest included a pass interference on Shakur Brown, a personal foul on Brown, unsportsmanlike conduct on Mike Panasiuk and a cheap shot roughing the passer call on Jacub Panasiuk that kicked him out from the game.
Panasiuk hit Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson well after he had released the pass, and the ejection was warranted.
“We definitely needed him," senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. "He’s our starting defensive end so, it can’t happen. We need you.”
Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio said, “I'm disappointed in those, because we talked about keeping our composure. I think the game was called close, it was called close by the referees, by the officiating crew, due to everything that goes on in this game, so I think it was called close.
"I'm not sure until you see the film. I know the one series, I think we were down on the 40-yard line or so, we get a holding call plus a taunting, which I'm not sure I saw that, it's right on our sideline. That's a 25-yard penalty. When you have opportunities, you got to make good on your opportunities. We had too few of opportunities, so the percentages need to go up, when we had so few.”
Michigan State's youth movement continued in a major way against the Wolverines, as 12 true freshman saw time in Saturday's loss.
Nick Samac and J.D. Duplain both started on the offensive line for the second game in a row. Tre Mosley and Julian Barnett saw time at wideout, and Barnett recorded three catches for 29 yards.
Tate Hallock, Charles Willekes, younger brother to Kenny Willekes, and Jude Pedrozo — who has been the starting long snapper since Week 2 due to injury — played on special teams.
Defensive end Michael Fletcher and defensive-end-turned-tight-end Adam Berghorst both saw their first action of the season. Devontae Dobbs checked in late into the fourth quarter at left tackle for MSU, while Anthony Williams Jr. and Brandon Wright both saw time in the backfield.
When asked, Lewerke said getting younger guys mixed into the rivalry early in their college careers will help with their development.
“I think our future is very bright," he said. "You know, whenever young guys play they learn the game and to be in this game early, I think, is good for them. Just good playing experience. I think it will help in the long run.”
Josiah Scott left during the second half of Michigan State's 37-34 loss to Illinois last Saturday.
He returned for the Spartans' game against the Wolverines but lasted about a minute of game time. On Michigan's second play from scrimmage, the Wolverines ran a bubble screen to Scott's side of the field. Scott was undercut by a blocker, but managed to come up with the tackle while partially still on the ground. He remained on the ground until he was helped off the field and didn't return.
Following the game, Dantonio said he hopes Scott's injury will be "short term."
Tyriq Thompson, Luke Campbell and Jacub Panasiuk each were helped off the field at various points in the game and each returned to the field.
For the first time since Michigan State's opening game against Tulsa, wide reciever Jalen Nailor was in uniform for the Spartans. However, the sophomore from Palmdale, California, did not play. His return to the lineup does appear to be in the near future.
"I think he'll play next week," Dantonio said following the game. "We sort of left it up to him, but felt like he hadn't practiced but really Thursday's practice. He was able to run this week, but not practice until Thursday. Too few practice reps, he hadn't been touched yet or hit yet. We just wanted to keep him safe and ready."