Another week, another loss.
After four straight weeks without a win, Michigan State’s losing formula is starting to become very clear: terrible pass defense, almost no running game to speak of and a mediocre performance from the quarterback. Ohio State was simply able to magnify those glaring issues Saturday.
Perhaps the most obvious trait that reared its head against the Buckeyes was the feeble pass defense. Before he was pulled near the end of the third quarter, junior quarterback C.J. Stroud racked up 361 passing yards and six touchdowns, with a completion rate of 81%. His only blemish of the day was a pick-six tossed to sophomore cornerback Charles Brantley in the first quarter.
“He’s a heck of a player,” sophomore linebacker Cal Haladay said of Stroud. “Heisman candidate right now. He’s got a great wide receiver room, good backs, good o-line, it’s just a really good offense.”
Stroud is a bonafide Heisman contender, there’s no doubt about it. And given what's known about MSU's secondary, it’s not all that surprising that he was able to have a field day.
The problem is, nearly every opposing quarterback has looked like a Heisman contender against Michigan State.
Washington’s junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr. looked like one of the best quarterbacks in the nation when he faced MSU, finishing with 397 passing yards and four touchdowns. Maryland’s redshirt junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa tossed for over 300 yards when he faced the Spartans.
Even Minnesota, a team that’s offensive identity is intrinsically tied to the rushing attack, was able to light up the Spartan secondary (Tanner Morgan finished with an 85 percent completion rate with 268 passing yards and three touchdowns against Michigan State).
MSU had a secondary issue heading into Saturday’s game against Ohio State. It was only exacerbated by Stroud’s elite talent.
On the other side of the ball, the most concerning stat of the night had to be the seven yards on the ground.
“We have to be able to run the ball. You can’t be one-dimensional,” Head Coach Mel Tucker said. “Defensively, if you can make a team one-dimensional — take away the run so they have to throw the ball — you basically have them where you want them.”
Again, that lack of a rushing attack is nothing new. Against Power Five opponents, MSU has not been able to consistently pound the rock. The Spartans have only hit 100 rushing yards in a game once in the past month (the team finished with exactly 100 yards against Maryland).
Sure, redshirt sophomore Jalen Berger might slice up the field for a nice gain or redshirt senior Elijah Collins could rumble ahead for a first down, but those plays rarely happen with consistency. Every solid gain on the ground seems to be balanced by a flaccid one or two-yard gain, or even a loss of yardage.
That one-dimensional offense has not helped MSU’s quarterback. Redshirt junior Payton Thorne had another less-than-stellar day, finishing with 113 passing yards, a touchdown and an interception. When it became clear that Michigan State had no chance at victory, he was replaced by redshirt sophomore Noah Kim.
“I hate losing a lot and to lose four games in a row, that’s not something I feel like I’ve ever really done ... in any sport,” Thorne said.
To be fair, Thorne's offensive line didn’t provide much support. Ohio State’s defensive line bullied Michigan State’s offensive line throughout the afternoon, notching four sacks and five tackles for loss.
Like the rest of Michigan State’s issues, Thorne’s struggles are nothing new. Last weekend against Maryland, he threw for a pedestrian 221 yards and a touchdown. Against Minnesota the week before, he threw for just 132 yards with two interceptions. Thorne’s best performance of the year thus far was against Washington, when he threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception.
After an impressive showing in 2021, not much has gone right for the Spartan's starting quarterback this season. Ohio State's elite pass defense and scary front seven certainly help explain Thorne's poor performance on Saturday, but like MSU's other glaring issues, it was not the first time concerning traits have appeared.
Halfway through the season, time is running out for Michigan State to address its grocery list of issues. Next weekend, Wisconsin is coming to town. With an interim head coach, the Badgers look to be the best shot MSU has had in a while to get a win.
On a four game skid, the Spartans will have to do more than “keep chopping” if they want to snap the losing streak. Those recurring traits that have created a losing formula have to be eliminated. Or, at the very least, improved upon.
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