Mark Dantonio keeps looking to new metaphors.
He has likened the downfall of his team to a descent down a mountain. It’s much quicker and easier than the climb up. He’s described his players’ journey as taking place on a road — they may not all be at the same spot, but he believes they’re all on that same road, headed in the same direction.
And last week after Michigan State’s loss to Michigan, the Spartans’ coach didn’t have to create one himself: The lights literally shut off briefly during his press conference, prompting snickers at the symbolism.
Seven losses in a row may soon draw out all the creativity Dantonio can muster to describe his team’s performance. And after the Spartans fell 31-27 to Illinois on Saturday, metaphors are no longer necessary. This team is just bad.
What makes it so? Well, some of the same problems that seldom plagued the Michigan State program in years past have shown up week after week, and you can bet they showed up again in Champaign, Ill.
They’re going to happen. A misstep here, a hold to prevent a sack there. No team can stay completely mistake-free.
Michigan State’s lack of discipline this season, though, has been extraordinary. The Spartans lead the Big Ten with 66.8 penalty yards per game. Opponents average just 39.8. That chasm grew even beyond the average Saturday, as MSU racked up 89 yards to the Illini’s 10.
And it’s not just the number of yards. It’s when and where they occur. The Spartans committed seven offensive penalties. Six of those occurred in Illinois territory, 36 yards or fewer from the end zone.
Just look at Michigan State’s second drive of the game. A week after mostly avoiding offensive line troubles against Michigan, the Spartans were plagued by them in a big way in the early going against Illinois:
On 1st-and-10 at the Illinois 15-yard line, right tackle Miguel Machado is called for holding against future NFL Draft pick Dawuane Smoot. On the ensuing play, determined not to get called for holding, Machado allows Smoot to get by him and sack Tyler O’Connor. This series of events leads Dantonio to turn to freshman tackle Thiyo Lukusa at right tackle. On third and 25, Lukusa can’t keep up either and has to pull Smoot to the ground.
Oh, and that field position? Now the Spartans are all the way back at the 40, with a third and 35. A 4-yard rush from LJ Scott isn’t enough to get them back in field goal position, and they punt. What could have easily been a 10-0 lead remains 3-0.
And the miscues aren’t limited to an opponent simply being better, like Smoot was in this case. Early in the fourth quarter, Michigan State had a first down at the Illinois 14-yard line, trailing 24-17. Illinois stuffs the run on first down, then quarterback Damion Terry throws a poor pass to Felton Davis in the end zone that should have been directed at his back shoulder. Instead, it falls incomplete.
But the most egregious error comes on third down, when Davis inexplicably jumps before the snap and sets the Spartans back 5 yards.
That can’t happen from a receiver. It shouldn’t happen from anyone, but especially a wideout — and especially not in such a crucial situation. Now facing third and 15, the Spartans get 7 yards on a Terry run but to settle for a short field goal rather than what could’ve been a game-tying touchdown.
Then, of course, the final Illini drive of the game saw redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff George Jr. looking like his father in his prime, thanks in large part to a back-to-back pass interference calls against Tyson Smith.
It seems like every time Michigan State has a chance to sprint past its opponent to the finish line, it trips over its own feet.
This cannot be understated. Michigan State has beaten a lot of teams because of its ability to surprise. But this season, the Spartans have been more predictable than ever.
The offensive line has made it clear that MSU won’t grind teams down and win games in the trenches. Without that ability, Dantonio’s team has to catch people off guard with big plays. The times the Spartans have been able to do that has been in large part because of the ability of R.J. Shelton.
But more often than not, the Spartans have been stuck with short gains, hoping to steadily move downfield. But these short gains are seldom game-changers. And when those game-changing plays do come around, Michigan State still doesn’t capitalize.
Take the lone play of 30 yards or more from the Spartans the entire game Saturday: Tyler O’Connor hitting Donnie Corley for a pickup of 47 yards on the third play of the second half.
First off, target Corley more. There’s so much talk about getting youngsters involved, and while Corley is a true freshman, he’s also extremely talented regardless of class. And yet he was only targeted three times in this game.
Secondly, this play was immediately followed by a 10-yard reception by Shelton, putting Michigan State back in the red zone. And yet the Spartans once again had to settle for a field goal after failing to capitalize with a subpar defense on its heels. It could’ve been 13-7, but it instead was 9-7.
Conversely, Illinois made its main big play count. This wasn’t about a missed tackle from Michigan State, which has often been to blame. This was simply a bad read from the linebackers and an inability to react in time.
That’s Illinois’ Kendrick Foster breaking free for a 64-yard touchdown on the ensuing drive. That’s also Illinois taking advantage of its opportunities, unlike Michigan State. This Spartans defense has given up countless big runs because of a depleted corps that seems to run out of energy in the second half of games.
And just about everything else
It might be easier to go through all that went right for Michigan State in this game. It would certainly be a more manageable piece.
But the reality is that the mistakes had a far greater role in the outcome Saturday. They started with needless penalties, leading to failed opportunities in the red zone. This offense needs to take advantage of any chances it gets to score, and if it can’t do that against one of the Big Ten’s worst scoring defenses, it won’t against anybody.
The Spartans had every opportunity to pull away early. They forced Illinois into five consecutive three-and-outs to open the game and had out-gained them 170-26 before the Illini’s final drive of the half. But after all that, they led 6-0.
It’s the story of this season. Michigan State has been pretty effective to open games. It just hasn’t given itself the lead that its production deserves. Then the second half rolls around, and the Spartans give up in one or two drives all that they’d built up in the first half.
Blame the trenches for a lot of it. Neither the offensive nor defensive line has pulled its weight for Michigan State this season. On offense, the tackles have not held the edge against any productive defensive ends and have resorted to holding far too often.
Defensively, the leader of the group, Malik McDowell, is so banged up that it seems he goes down at least once a game. He’s a warrior for continuing to fight, but he’s clearly not able to do everything of which he’s capable. And alongside him are a bunch of young talents who haven’t had any success getting after the quarterback.
Purdue and Rutgers, tied for the second-fewest sacks in the conference, have 16 apiece. Michigan State has less than half that, just seven. That’s 0.8 per game. The average continues to descend as the Spartans did not post a single sack against Illinois.
Other teams might be able to survive with their athleticism, but Michigan State relies on grinding teams down with strong line play. When that doesn’t happen, everything else falls apart, like we’ve seen throughout this losing streak.
Was Illinois a new low? Maybe, but you’ve got to evaluate all the other lows first and compare. And there have been a lot of lows.
Rutgers comes into town on Saturday, and if things get any lower, Dantonio will really have to reach for a new metaphor.