Monday, November 28, 2022

Michigan State’s special teams collapse spoils senior day, puts bowl eligibility in peril

November 19, 2022
Jaylen Lucas, 12, runs ahead of Michigan State for a Hoosier touchdown during MSU’s game against Indiana on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Spartan Stadium. The Hoosiers ultimately beat the Spartans, 39-31.
Jaylen Lucas, 12, runs ahead of Michigan State for a Hoosier touchdown during MSU’s game against Indiana on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Spartan Stadium. The Hoosiers ultimately beat the Spartans, 39-31. —
Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

There’s 0:02 left on the clock. 

Michigan State has possession of the ball. After a couple of solid runs from redshirt senior running back Elijah Collins, the Spartans have the ball right about where they want it at the five-yard line. 

A 22-yard field goal is a chip shot in college ball. With bowl eligibility on the line, the script seemed set for Michigan State. After such a tumultuous season, it only made sense that the Spartans would barely squeak out a victory to finally secure a bid to the postseason. Despite all the adversity, MSU would be able to hang its head high and say it came together to fight through all the struggles.

And junior kicker Ben Patton missed it wide left. It wasn’t even particularly close. 

On an afternoon where Michigan State outgained its opponent 540-288, held a 24-7 lead at halftime and gave up just 31 (!) yards through the air, victory should’ve been all but assured. 

But the Spartans found a way to snatch a loss from the jaws of victory. 

“It’s not a very exciting time in the locker room,” redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne said. “It’s silent. Guys are a little bit in disbelief at the way the game ended. It stings.”

By no means should all the blame for Saturday afternoon’s loss rest on Patton and the field goal unit. There were certainly other contributing factors to Michigan State’s second-half collapse against the Hoosiers. Indiana’s Dexter Williams II ran roughshod over the Spartans’ defense. While the defense actually had a statistically solid evening, Indiana consistently used long-yardage touchdowns and chunk plays to power the offense. 

But the special teams' miscues have to sting the most — especially the missed game-winning field goal. 

“Some hidden yardage and special teams were a factor,” Head Coach Mel Tucker said. “We had an opportunity to win the game and we weren’t able to get it done.”

Patton made just one field goal on three attempts against Indiana. To be fair to the transfer kicker, the snap on the field goal attempt in the first overtime was a bad one and it was technically blocked. 

However, Patton and the field goal unit’s struggles are not isolated incidents. Michigan State has not been able to trust its kicker all season. 

Just look at how Michigan State ran its final drive of the night. Game tied, inside the opponent’s 10-yard line with just a few minutes left on the clock, a vast majority of coaches would be more than happy with the situation (just look at the rival Michigan Wolverines, who had total trust in their kicker to seal the game in a nail-biter against Illinois). 

However, considering the weather conditions and the field goal unit’s previous struggles, Tucker seemed intent on finding the end zone. 

“We weren’t initially playing for a field goal,” Tucker said. “It really wouldn’t sense for us to try to do that. But ultimately, that’s what happened.”

A similar situation unfolded against Illinois a few weeks ago, with parceling at the goal line late in the fourth quarter, altered by the field goal unit’s struggles. 

A team, especially one competing in the Big Ten, cannot be scared to utilize something as simple as a field goal unit. Much has been said about the talent level of the roster Tucker has inherited — until (or if) the talent on the roster improves, the margin for error is thin. 

“Most of the teams we play, it’s fairly evenly matched,” Tucker said. “It does come down to field position, special teams, big play here or there. It’s not a matter of unraveling, it’s a matter of the margins being very slim.”

It wasn’t just the field goal unit that had a miserable day against the Hoosiers. Michigan State’s kick return coverage was awful too. 

After taking a 31-14 lead with just over six minutes left in the third quarter, it seemed as though the Spartans had stabilized after a shaky start to the second half. Momentum seemed to be back with the home team. 

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Then, on the ensuing kickoff, freshman running back Jaylin Lucas ripped off a stellar 88-yard return to the end zone, bringing the game back within ten points. Again, momentum had swung. 

Michigan State’s defense had good moments in both halves and the offense, while somewhat lacking the second, was still able to move the ball throughout the afternoon. Ultimately, a majority of the blame falls on the special teams. 

That loss will sting for a while, but Michigan State is not necessarily eliminated from bowl eligibility. Sitting at 5-6, the Spartans could still make the postseason with a win at Penn State next weekend. 

However, MSU already had that win and bowl eligibility in its grasp. At home. Against an inferior opponent. 

And it couldn’t get the job done.

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