Thursday, December 2, 2021

Column: In a reality-checking loss, MSU learns it’s not ready yet to compete nationally

November 20, 2021
<p>Michigan State&#x27;s Ronald Williams (9) tackles Ohio State&#x27;s Mitch Rossi (34) on Nov. 20, 2021.</p>

Michigan State's Ronald Williams (9) tackles Ohio State's Mitch Rossi (34) on Nov. 20, 2021.

Photo by Rahmya Trewern | The State News

Depending on where you looked, Michigan State was somewhere around a 19.5-point underdog going into Saturday’s matchup at Ohio State.

For many, it was a head-scratching line. It was a matchup between two top-10 teams, both with just one loss each and a potential trip to the Big Ten Championship on the line. The majority of the public loved MSU and the points, but Ohio State needed just one quarter of play to cover the spread. 

It was a disaster from the first drive of the game all the way until OSU’s fourth-string running back, senior Robert Cope who had never gotten a carry in his career until the last minute of today’s game, carried for two yards to close out the game. 

The Spartans were uncompetitive, lackluster and comically bad. The performance today was horrendous and you could not even sugarcoat it if you tried. 

And with a loss like this, it does not just add a second loss to MSU’s win column. It serves as a reality check for what this team truly is: a very much above average team, but nowhere near ready to win the Big Ten. 

Like it has for years, the Big Ten runs through Columbus, and the Spartans got chewed-up, spit right back out and sent packing back to East Lansing. 

Ohio State did so via the Spartan secondary. It was a matchup between a defense that gave up the most passing yards in the country versus an offense that led the country in points and yards per game. With redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud and a three-headed monster at wide receiver, it was not a matter of whether MSU’s secondary would stop the OSU passing attack. That wasn’t going to happen. It was a matter of how bad the damage would be. 

The damage was bad. Extremely bad. Like ‘could not get much worse’ bad. In the first half alone, Stroud completed 29 of 31 pass attempts for 393 yards and six touchdown passes. He sliced and diced the Michigan State defense, setting a school record with 17 consecutive completed passes. The defensive backs were consistently getting burned and the pass rush was non-existent. 

But with a Heisman Trophy candidate running back in junior Kenneth Walker III, there was hope before the game that MSU could keep up with the Ohio State offense. However, the offense as well as atrocious and could barely pick up a first down before it was too late. 

The Spartans were forced to abandon the run early with a 21-point deficit in the first quarter. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne, coming off one of his best games as a Spartan, looked uncomfortable in the pocket and was off-target on plenty of throws. And Walker, who had a few chunk gains in the first half, had just seven touches on the day. 

Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker confirmed after the game that Walker was “a little banged up,” but any game with Walker having the ball in his hands just seven times is not how you knock off No. 4 Ohio State. It’s a recipe for disaster and one that is deserving of a 49-point defeat

“We are going to throw it, but we are a run-first team,” redshirt senior tight end Connor Heyward said. “We were just playing behind the sticks kind of hurting ourselves. When you get in that and you are trying to play catch-up, you kind of get away from the run game.”

It’s a gut punch and certainly an indication that this team would not have been competitive in the College Football Playoff. The weaknesses, specifically on defense, are far too deep and great teams like Ohio State make them easily exploitable.  

Now, what this team has accomplished cannot be forgotten. They still started the season 8-0 with a signature win over Michigan and have many talented players. Even dropping two of the last three games, MSU still can position itself well to make a meaningful bowl game with a home win over Penn State and the 10th win of the season.

The Spartans still are a top-15 team, at least in my eyes, but who knows what tricks the CFP committee will make up this week. After all, the committee already did not like MSU when it ranked Michigan one spot ahead despite an identical record and a head-to-head win and it will not like this loss either, probably for good reason. 

Clearly, there is still lots of work to be done within the program, but Tucker still has it pointing in the right direction. Nine wins this year after a 2-5 record in his first season is an impressive feat. You would have been crazy to predict this kind of season for Michigan State. 

Tucker indicated he knows what needs to be done for MSU to get over the Ohio State hump, but whether it can be done is still in question.

“Recruiting is where we’re going to close the gap,” Tucker said. “That’s because we need more depth. We need more guys that can win one-on-one. ...We need to recruit like crazy.”

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