ANN ARBOR, Mich. — There was a point where the big plays and long conversions were finally getting to them.
Already on their way to a blowout victory, Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson and the Wolverine offense had a few more big plays in them. On third-and-20 from the Michigan State 48-yard line, Patterson connected with a wide-open Sean McKeon, who slipped behind the Spartan linebackers, for a 27-yard gain. All Antjuan Simmons and Tyriq Thompson could do was look up to the sky in frustration.
Another big play given up. Another chance to get off of the field wasted.
There were a lot of those instances in the 14th-ranked Wolverines' 44-10 win over Michigan State, the worst loss for the Spartans in the rivalry since 2002. For the Spartans' defense, especially the secondary, those issues have been a steady trend all season.
“When the lights come on you either make the play or you don’t," senior safety David Dowell said. "You got to make the tackle or you don’t. You make the play on the ball or you don’t. And we’re not doing a very good job on the back end of doing that this year.”
For the second game in a row, Michigan State's defense gave up monstrous numbers to an opposing quarterback. Last week, former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in the Illini's 37-34 comeback win.
Patterson followed that up with 24 completions in 33 attempts, 384 yards — the most in his Michigan career — and four touchdowns.
“You got to make plays on the ball in the deep part of the field and that's part of it," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "Third-and-20 or so, you got to make a play on the ball.”
The big plays made by the Wolverines, and lack there of by Michigan State's defense, was a big reason why Michigan scored 24-consecutive points after the Spartans took a 7-0 lead on a 1-yard touchdown pass to Max Rosenthal.
The Wolverines recorded 18 chunk plays in Saturday's game. Fourteen passes went for 15 yards or more, and four runs went for 10 yards or more. Three of those passes resulted in Michigan touchdowns. Patterson connected with Donovan Peoples-Jones for an 18-yard touchdown to increase Michigan's lead to 24-7 in the third quarter. Then, he connected with Nico Collins for a 22-yard touchdown to make it 34-10 and then Cornelius Johnson scored his first college touchdown when he was lost in coverage for 39 yards to make it 44-10.
"Ridiculous," Raequan Williams said after the game. "That's not Spartan Dawg defense.”
Michigan State's defense has fell a long way since ending last season as a top-10 ranked group. The Spartans have surrendered 30 or more points in five of its 10 games this season. The secondary has allowed 1,328 passing yards and 14 touchdowns during MSU's five-game losing streak. Out of all of Michigan State's issues, it's been as big of a problem as any.
“Not playing the ball well enough, not tackling well enough," Dowell said. "Moving forward, like I said. I sound like a broken record, but all you can do is practice those things and you got to execute in the game. That's our biggest issue right now in the back end. We’re not executing, and it starts with me being a fifth-year senior. That's really all it comes down to. You got to do it in practice, we got to execute in the game. We got another opportunity next week to do that.”
As it is for the entire Michigan State team, there is no more room for error. Now at 4-6, the Spartans can't lose another game and reach bowl eligibility. They need to be perfect. For that to happen, Michigan State's defense may need to be, too.
“I guess I've been saying this the past six weeks: every time you step on the field it's another opportunity," Dowell said. "Opportunity to play better, opportunity to play well, opportunity to win games, so that's our goal and mindset moving forward.”