EAST LANSING, Mich. — “We knew what they were when they came into this football game,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio proclaimed in a Denny Green-esque way after his Spartans lost 30-6 to Wisconsin on Saturday.
“We talked about it this week at length that they were a very solid football team. They would make you beat them. Fundamentally sound.”
What Dantonio presumably meant by that coachspeak is that a win wasn’t just going to be handed to Michigan State. The Spartans would have to earn the victory. And, by the way it made mistakes throughout, Michigan State certainly didn’t earn it.
This game was defined more by MSU errors than by Wisconsin’s successes. To be fair, many of those errors were caused by the aggressive play of the Badgers.
Last weekend’s Michigan State win over Notre Dame made it difficult to dwell on the negatives of senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor. He got the job done against what was then a ranked team, so where was the room to complain?
Now things are a lot more clear. Furman is 0-4. Notre Dame is 1-3, having lost to Duke this weekend. As it turns out, Wisconsin was the first truly tough opponent the Spartans had faced this season. It showed.
What had worked for O’Connor before this game worked no longer. Instead of seeing under-thrown balls wind up in the waiting arms of receivers that had stopped their routes, defensive backs in tighter coverage picked them off.
Take O’Connor’s first interception, intended for Jamal Lyles. Wisconsin blitzed with extra pass rushers on O’Connor’s right side. Running back LJ Scott was left to try to stave off two defenders, which he obviously couldn’t do, and O’Connor was hit as he threw.
Had he not been pressured, O’Connor likely would have (and definitely should have) seen Sojourn Shelton playing off Lyles. Shelton read the pass the entire way and jumped in front.
The pressure was a huge reason O’Connor became the first Michigan State quarterback with three interceptions in a game since Andrew Maxwell in 2012. In O’Connor’s three other starts, he was sacked four times, and not once against Notre Dame. The Badgers did not offer that level of comfort in the pocket.
“There was definitely more pressure,” O’Connor said. “Obviously, they blitzed more than Notre Dame did or we didn’t protect as well. One of the two. I thought that was the biggest thing.”
O’Connor already doesn’t possess all that strong of an arm, and, when he was pressured, his passes had even less zip. Not only did they often fail to reach the intended target, but they hung in the air for what seemed like ages, waiting to be picked off.
And in those rushed moments, when O’Connor had to make decisions quicker than he probably had hoped, he often made the wrong ones. He knows that. On a rollout in the third quarter, he failed to detect linebacker T.J. Edwards scraping. Had he seen Edwards, he likely would’ve opted for a throw to Donnie Corley who was wide open in the end zone.
And his final interception … who knows? It was just a woefully underthrown ball. It looked as though O’Connor had grown weary from four quarters of being pressured like he never had been before.
It wasn’t just O’Connor who made the errors that allowed Wisconsin to pull away. A fumbled snap on a punt deep in Michigan State’s end zone wasn’t technically recorded as a turnover, but it allowed Wisconsin to score on the very next play.
Scott’s fumble, as well, broke the game wide open. Scott had already burst through the first line of defense when D’Cota Dixon dove in and popped the ball loose. It didn’t look as though Scott wasn’t securing the ball well. This was just another instance of the defensive slugfest put on by the Badgers.
When asked why they think Michigan State is underrated, players have responded with some variation of the phrase: “They’re disciplined.” That typical expectation of the Spartans by themselves and others was let down Saturday.
Emphasis on the pass
Going into this game, Michigan State was among the Big Ten leaders in rushing yards. Against Notre Dame, they put up 260.
The first play from scrimmage on Saturday saw Scott find room to run between the tackles and gain 19 yards. After that, Michigan State compiled 56 yards the rest of the afternoon.
They just couldn’t find success on the ground. Even with the 16-yard loss from the fumbled snap removed from consideration, the Spartans averaged under 3.4 yards per carry. That, combined with 20 incompletions on the afternoon, left MSU in long third-down situations, which puts a team in a set up to fail.
Michigan State converted four of 13 third downs, and the low percentage is no surprise when considering the distances: Seven of those third downs had the Spartans 10 yards or more from the first-down marker. The average distance to first down on those plays was 9.6 yards, and the average amount of yards they gained was 3.1.
That’s a huge reason O’Connor kept throwing. The offense couldn’t get into a rhythm running the ball and creating manageable third-down opportunities, so the Spartans kept trying to go through the air. The result was 43 passing attempts versus 27 rushes.
And once the game got out of hand in the third quarter, the reasons for running the ball were scarce. Michigan State had to play catchup, which meant O’Connor had to keep airing it out.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, ran the ball 41 times compared to 26 passes. The perennial rushing leaders of the Big Ten kept to what they do despite struggling to find success doing it.
The Badgers only rushed for 122 yards on all those carries, an average of about three yards per attempt. Still, sticking with the run game ensured that they picked up at least some yards instead of none, making the average distance on third downs a slightly more manageable 7.3 yards.
Even when faced with improbable conversion attempts, Wisconsin’s redshirt freshman quarterback was up for the task. Alex Hornibrook threw some beautiful balls, such as the one above to Jazz Peavy, and the Michigan State secondary’s coverage just wasn’t tight enough. The same problems that occurred against Notre Dame seemed to strike again.
Quarterback play proved to be a big difference in this game. On the Wisconsin side, it didn’t look as though Hornibrook’s first start was going to end well when he loosely held the ball at his side and had it slapped away for a fumble on the Badgers’ first possession.
However, he recovered well and hit his receivers accurately. They were the kind of throws over the top of a defense that O’Connor hasn’t yet shown he can consistently make. When faced with those situations, O’Connor has often underthrown his receivers and relied on them to come back and make plays.
Dantonio sort of shrugged off the notion that there’s currently a quarterback battle, but he also said it’s about production. O’Connor will have chances to produce, but he’ll need to look much more confident under pressure.
The big takeaway is that Michigan State needs to prevent the giveaways. In the season opener against Furman, the Spartans were plagued by penalties. This time, it was turnovers.
We’re starting to learn where this team stands, especially as we see how poor those Furman and Notre Dame teams seem to be. Michigan State has not proven it’s a team capable of going back to the Big Ten Championship Game.
There’s still plenty of time, of course. But when you’re still searching for your identity four weeks into the season, it’s time to find a sense of urgency. No game will be easy. Not even against Indiana.
This loss can’t be blamed on the defense, even though the secondary looked shaky once again. Riley Bullough’s absence didn’t hurt the linebacking corps too much, and Michigan State ending up winning the yards battle, 325-317 (a lot of which came late when the game was already effectively decided).
It’s an issue of turnovers, an issue of getting the running game going and an issue of giving O’Connor the level of comfort in the pocket that he needs to be accurate and mistake-free. The offensive line, which dominated against a poor Notre Dame defense, couldn’t do the job against Wisconsin.
And the Spartans need a lot more out of O’Connor as well. He has to be able to stand strong and deliver throws with pass rushers coming at him. He can’t loft so many dangerous balls, hoping that one of his athletic receivers will wrest it from a defender.
Michigan State has to be disciplined, something that’s assumed but hasn’t been proven yet this season.