This was no Big Ten battle in which both teams knew exactly what to expect of each other.
BYU and Michigan State had never faced each other before Saturday’s game in East Lansing, Mich., a 31-14 home loss for the Spartans. But this game did not offer the fireworks one might expect.
Instead, the Cougars seemed to be ready for just about everything Michigan State threw at them, mainly because nothing the Spartans tried seemed at all surprising. Just take it from the mouth of a BYU coach.
BYU assistant coach as he walks off the field: "the didn't do a single thing we didn't plan for."
— Mike Mulholland (@mulho2mj) October 8, 2016
How does this happen? In the midst of two straight losses (which became three straight with this defeat), one would anticipate a coaching staff heavily motivated to try something new. But it was BYU, not Michigan State, trying play calls like the flea flicker that drew a pass interference call on Spartans cornerback Tyson Smith.
What went wrong for Michigan State this time around? It seems to be something a little different each time. In order to assess what didn’t work, it helps to take a look at what did.
The opening drive
The Spartans defense bent, but didn’t break to start this game, forcing a turnover on downs that gave them possession at their own 28-yard line. Their drive began with an aerial assault, as quarterback Tyler O’Connor threw on eight of the first 10 plays.
In doing so, O’Connor targeted five different receivers. This must have been oddly satisfying for fans who, on one hand, wanted to see co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner “open up” the playbook, but who also wanted someone other than O’Connor in at quarterback.
Regardless, O’Connor looked sharp to start the game. As the ball kept moving downfield, he was able to get in the sort of rhythm that eluded him in weeks past. And with a stronger offensive line that held BYU without a sack in the first half, he could stand tall in the pocket and deliver a strong throw with the wind at his back.
Once in the red zone, Michigan State just pounded the ball via the run, and the offensive line allowed that to happen. Just look at Gerald Holmes’ touchdown run.
Every blocker did a wonderful job on his assignment. To be quite honest, this isn’t great running by Holmes. He followed his blockers but didn’t find the hole, instead running right into a defender. However, he ran with such power and determination that he just spun right off and took it to the end zone.
Everything clicked on this drive, and not because Michigan State tried anything particularly outlandish. The Spartans just didn’t make the usual mistakes that have halted drives. No penalties. No egregious drops. No fumbles or near-interceptions. The simple flow of the game put BYU on its heels and gave the Spartans the upper hand.
Then what happened to the offense?
The mistakes started. On the offense’s second drive, a high snap that probably should have been caught by O’Connor was not, and he had to dive on a loose ball that cost Michigan State nine yards. The next play: holding. The next play: an illegal shift penalty.
Mistakes will happen, of course. Rarely can a team stay completely free of them. But letting them snowball must be avoided. One penalty can potentially be overcome, but rarely can two in a row.
The next drive saw Michigan State start at its own 3-yard line, but Holmes helped the Spartans push their way out of that danger zone. That drive ended because Holmes kept getting the ball. It became clear that, going into the wind, they were going to keep pounding the ball on the ground, and the BYU defense responded, forcing a punt.
The next drive saw much of the same, as the Spartans again were pinned deep. Three rushes from LJ Scott (his only three of the game) gained nine yards, and another punt followed. In fact, MSU did not throw the ball a single time in the second quarter.
So, what led coach Mark Dantonio to feel he had to make a change at quarterback? O’Connor had only thrown the ball 11 times. He’d completed seven of them. He hadn’t turned the ball over. By Dantonio’s own admission, O’Connor hadn’t played poorly.
The sacks played a big part. No one should reasonably expect O’Connor to be spectacular. When he tries to do too much, bad things tend to happen, so the expectation was that he just needed to be solid.
In the second half, though, O’Connor took it upon himself to try to extend plays and make something happen. On several occasions, that meant responding to a collapsed pocket by trying to weave his way around potential tacklers. It didn’t work.
Sure, things aren’t going to end well here. But you have to limit the damage by throwing the ball away. Dantonio decided to give Damion Terry a shot because even if getting sacked a few times isn’t the worst thing in the world, O’Connor hadn’t done enough to warrant staying on the field. Change was needed.
Can’t get off the field
No team will win many games by scoring seven points before the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter. And yet, the Michigan State defense plays just as big a part in this loss.
Michigan State ranks 105th out of 128 FBS teams by allowing opponents to convert on 45.2 percent of their third-down attempts. BYU elevated that percentage by converting 10-of-16 tries.
After the game, co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett blamed an inability to finish. Finish plays, and teams can finish drives. Finish drives, and teams can get off the field. Get off the field, and players have the energy to finish the game.
But so many chances were lost because of an inability to do the little things properly. Missed tackles plagued the Spartans and gave BYU chances it probably shouldn’t have had. This play didn’t come on third down, but it still hurt MSU and put the Cougars in position to take the lead.
Issues like these kept the Michigan State defense on the field for 78 plays and 34 minutes, 34 seconds while the offense got just 53 plays and 25:26. That’ll wear on a defense over the course of a game, especially a defense missing players due to injury and suspension.
The effects showed themselves, as expected, in the fourth quarter, even with star defensive tackle Malik McDowell having returned to action after halftime. BYU running back Jamaal Williams still steamrolled a beaten-down Michigan State front seven.
In the first half, BYU’s rushing attack was stifled, limited to a manageable 67 yards. Then in the third quarter alone, the Cougars amassed 63 yards. And the wheels fell off for the Spartans in the fourth, when BYU ran for 130 yards, matching its total from the previous three quarters.
Not only were the Cougars’ backs able to run between the tackles basically untouched, but, when they were touched, they didn’t go down. At one point, BYU’s Squally Canada turned what should have been an 8-yard run into 21 yards. He showed more determination to stay on his feet than multiple MSU defenders showed to bring him down.
From just looking at film, it’s hard to gauge effort, and it would be unfair to assume the Michigan State players started giving subpar effort. But given how long they’d been on the field, it’s fair to say they seemed tired, mentally or physically.
It’s one thing to be a team that periodically makes avoidable mistakes. It’s another to repeatedly let those mistakes derail drives.
This is not the Michigan State team fans have become accustomed to seeing under Dantonio. It has been error-prone, undisciplined and ineffective. When the Spartans have found what works, they have failed to build upon that success.
The BYU game showed the same problems that arose for Michigan State against Indiana. The Spartans controlled the game early, yet failed to capitalize and build a convincing lead. Then in the second half, they played conservatively, couldn’t get stops on defense and gave up what should have been a bigger lead.
How will Michigan State respond? Do you go young and prepare for the future? Maybe, but that’s unfair to those who have earned starting spots. At the same time, change is needed, and going young may light a fire under those who admittedly haven’t shown the leadership expected of them.
Dantonio won’t say this season is lost. The Spartans won’t stop trying to win. But for a team accustomed to double-digit wins, trying to derive motivation from simply trying to get to a bowl game will leave a stale taste.