Michael Penix Jr. looked left and then right. Indiana receiver Ty Fryfogle was going to get open. His quarterback and he both knew it.
Shakur Brown tried to stop it, but Fryfogle caught the ball anyway, then sprinted down the sideline past empty bleachers for 65 yards and a touchdown. It was still the second quarter and Indiana went up 24-0.
“I know Ty’s going to get the job done when it needs to be done,” Penix said after the game. “... That’s just something we expect.”
Fryfogle ran all over the field on his way to an unrealistic first-half stat line: 178 receiving yards, nine catches and two touchdowns in two quarters in a 24-0 win over Michigan State that pushed the AP-ranked No. 10 Hoosiers to 4-0. The game was the Spartans' first time being shut out in the Big Ten since Oct. 12, 1985, when MSU lost to Michigan 31-0.
The team that Spartan fans saw against Rutgers in Week 1, seven turnovers and all, returned. In what was the farthest version from the team that beat its rival 27-24 and a week after Iowa beat the Spartans 49-7, the halftime whistle sounded and MSU hadn't scored a point, for the second straight week.
Turnovers, again, doomed the Spartans. There were three in the first half for MSU, and quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who led the Spartans to a road win against Michigan two weeks ago, was benched for redshirt-freshman Payton Thorne in the first half.
“We thought it was some decision making early in the game in the first half, and Payton was the next man up,” Tucker said on the decision to play Thorne. “We gave him (Thorne) an opportunity, it was as simple as that. … There’s no position set in stone on this team, quarterback or any other.”
That moment was when the Spartans, who dropped to 1-3 with the loss, finally looked to the future in what is trending toward a rebuilding year.
Michigan State now faces a test. They will travel to Maryland next Saturday to face an improving Terrapins team, and the roller coaster of a season continues.
“We still have four games to play,” linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “We got a long season ahead of us, and we just got to keep playing. We just got to keep fighting.”
A team struggling to find its identity
MSU looked like it caught lightning in a bottle during the Michigan game when Lombardi threw for 323 and three touchdowns, connecting with freshman receiver Ricky White for 196 of those yards.
It escaped as Lombardi dodged a pass rusher and stepped up in the pocket with 5:26 left in the first, only to throw the ball to Indiana defensive back Taiwan Mullen.
Lombardi threw his sixth and seventh interceptions of the season, one into double coverage and the other directly to a IU defensive back. Thorne looked like the better option, more so when he opened up his first snap of the second quarter with a 38-yard run with 9:16 left in the first half than when he started 1-of-4 passing.
That isn't a good start, but the Naperville, Illinois native improved as the game continued. He led the Spartan offense to four first downs in the third quarter, one more than MSU had in the entire first half.
“It was nice to get in there and get some real action,” Thorne said. “... Wish I would’ve played a little bit better today obviously but yeah, it was nice to get out there and get some snaps.”
But the Spartans' offense sputtered.
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MSU is struggling to find an identity with a lack of a run game. The Spartans only finished with 60 rushing yards and Elijah Collins, who led the team last year in rushing, has remained an outsider when competing for snaps.
The defense of MSU was put in bad positions by an offense without an identity and it is killing MSU. Indiana, who is one of the best teams in the red zone in the country, took over with the ball in MSU territory on scoring drives at the 50, MSU 16 and MSU 25 yard lines in the first half — those drives accounted for 17 of the Hoosiers 24 points.
A missed Charles Campbell 41-yard field goal with :27 left in the second quarter by IU closed out what was a forgettable half for MSU.
MSU's defense shows improvement, IU's receivers run free
Simmons, who was banged up against Iowa, came back in full force against Indiana. The senior linebacker was again the leader of his team's defense, pounding his way to 14 total tackles.
Despite Fryfogle's eye-popping day, the Spartans gave up zero points in the second half that culminated with a fourth and goal pass breakup by Xavier Henderson with 9:41 left in the game. That goal line stand, two first half interceptions by Brown and a more consistent ability to get off the field on third down proved the defense improved from the game against Iowa.
“It can be hard, but at the end of the day you got to get out there and play ball,” Simmons said. “If somebody turns the ball over and you go out there and get a three and out, what is there to be sad or feel down about? You stopped them and gave your offense a chance to go down the field and score points. That’s just what it is.”
But the No. 10 ranked Hoosiers were too much for MSU.
Indiana depends on the pass, Michael Penix Jr. averaged 12.8 yards per completion and the game that started with Brown intercepting Penix — Penix's second of the year — seemed closer than it would end up being early on.
The IU sophomore quarterback didn't make bad decisions on either throw, Brown just made great plays. Specifically when he jumped a pass headed for the endzone in the second quarter. There was pressure on Penix, but he still finished with more than 300 passing yards.
Fryfogle and Whop Philyor, who led the Hoosiers in receiving yards coming into Saturday, finished with more than 200 receiving yards between the pair and Penix completed passes to eight different receivers.
What's next for MSU
The Spartans will play at Maryland on Saturday, Nov. 21. The time and channel for the game are to be determined.
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