EAST LANSING, Mich. — An exasperated Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio plainly said on the radio following the Spartans’ 24-21 overtime loss at Indiana, “We’ve got to do things right.”
Easier said than done, surely. But in such a brutal and difficult game to play, the little things shouldn’t let a team down. Michigan State won in overall yardage. It won in time of possession. It tied in the turnover battle, with each team coughing it up just once.
So what went wrong? Michigan State didn’t make the winning plays that a team must make. Yes, that’s vague, but it’s true. Those came in the form of errors on plays that should have resulted in scoring, as well as some mistakes that halted drives and others that allowed Indiana to continue moving the ball.
Let’s take a look at these errors, if you can stomach it. Many of them seem minor, but they add up to significant damage.
Whether or not anyone asked Dantonio to list mistakes, he did so.
“Can’t jump offsides,” he started. The Spartans saw themselves flagged for three false starts and an offsides amounting to 20 yards. Two of those false starts fell on Dave Beedle at left tackle, who consistently looked a bit jumpy and in search of any slight head start that would help him in pass coverage.
On this first flag, Michigan State had the good fortune of overcoming it, because the third-and-15 turned into a pass interference on Indiana and a first down for the Spartans. But, on the next possession, a needless jump forward from junior defensive end Demetrius Cooper gave the Hoosiers a much more manageable third down, which they converted.
The second false start on Michigan State, which went against senior tight end Jamal Lyles, halted a drive in its tracks and forced a punt. This matters when you’re facing a defense that has not been strong and you’re moving the ball well. The Spartans had all the chances to build a more substantial lead than 7-0 in the first half, but instead of forcing the Hoosiers to do the work on defense, they stopped themselves.
“Can’t have holding penalties,” Dantonio said. There were four of them, each time coming from a different culprit. One from senior center Kodi Kieler negated what would have been a first down from an R.J. Shelton catch in the second quarter.
The most egregious went against senior guard Benny McGowan late in the second quarter. Michigan State had found success moving the ball, and quarterback Tyler O’Connor whipped a pass to receiver Monty Madaris that would have given the Spartans the ball on Indiana’s 34-yard line with 15 more seconds to get in position to score.
Alas, the play was called back for an obvious hold from McGowan. O’Connor probably would have been sacked if not for the hold, but, of course, it’s not the hold that’s the problem. It’s the lapse in coverage that made McGowan deem the hold necessary.
Michigan State should have at least been able to get in field goal position with a chance to increase its lead to 10-0 before halftime … which leads us to the next bullet point.
“Gotta make a kick,” Dantonio said. To be fair, Indiana kicker Griffin Oakes missed a pair of field goals on the day (three if you count the overtime miss that was negated by a leaping penalty), so this didn’t necessarily hurt the Spartans more.
But, as a coach, you don’t weight the opponents’ mistakes against yours and calculate whether it’s put you at a net disadvantage. You just see what your team has done wrong. And in a vacuum, the Michigan State kicking game certainly wasn’t good.
The first drive of the game got the Spartans in position for a 40-yard attempt, but it looked like senior Michael Geiger didn’t get enough height on the kick, leading to its getting blocked. And when faced with a 49-yarder in overtime, the likes of which would’ve matched the personal best he set as a freshman, Geiger came up woefully short.
With three kickoffs sent out of bounds this season and three field goals missed, special teams continue to hurt MSU mightily.
“Can’t take two sacks in overtime,” Dantonio added to the list. And that leads us back to the kicking. Why should Geiger be kicking a 49-yarder in overtime anyway? Teams start on the 25-yard line. A manageable kick should be inevitable.
And yet, two straight plays led to two straight sacks and put the Spartans in a fourth-and-17 situation. O’Connor can move pretty well. You’d assume he could use his elusiveness to buy himself some time should he see pressure coming.
However, both of these sacks came from his blind side. Beedle, who struggled all night, was beaten on the first one and left guard Brian Allen was beaten on the second. On neither occasion could O’Connor adequately prepare to avoid those pass-rushers. After the missed field goal that followed, Indiana celebrated like it had already won because it’s not too tough a task to score in college football overtime unless you make mistakes like MSU did.
Michigan State allowed two sacks the entire game, and they occurred at the game’s most crucial moment. Meanwhile, Indiana didn’t allow a single sack. When criticism is heaved at O’Connor (who finished 21-of-35 with 263 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions), it should be noted that his offensive line has often put him in tough situations during the past two games.
Examining questionable calls
“Can’t have two special teams penalties from one guy.” OK, Dantonio didn’t say that, but it fits in well. When you’re in punt and kick coverage, you generally don’t want to be acknowledged, because it often means you’ve done something wrong.
Junior Drake Martinez had a rough day. First, he was called for interference on a potential punt return in the second quarter. Indiana’s Mitchell Paige didn’t call for a fair catch, but Martinez was deemed to have timed his run a little early.
A 2012 rule change prohibits anyone in coverage from being within one yard of a return man as he first makes contact with the ball. A look at the replay seems to affirm that Martinez did not allow for that space.
Then there’s the penalty in overtime, one that seemed to leave Dantonio dumbfounded during his postgame comments. Faced with a fourth down, Indiana opted to attempt a 33-yard field goal for the win. It went wide left, but flags immediately flew.
Martinez was called for leaping, which is a personal foul. It gave the Hoosiers a first down and, ultimately, the much easier kick that won the game.
Was the call merited? Well, leaping is defined in three different ways. Martinez did not “place a hand(s) on a teammate to get leverage for additional height.” However, he did violate the other two sections of the rule.
Martinez (No. 34), who can be seen running in and jumping, did step on a teammate in an attempt to block the kick, and he was propelled by that teammate. Considering this, the call seems to be a fair one.
And how about that targeting call that saw Michigan State’s best player, defensive tackle Malik McDowell, ejected from the game? Not only did the Spartans have to play without him for the rest of the loss, but they’ll miss him for the first half of next weekend’s BYU game.
This call was immediately going to be questioned simply because of typical misunderstandings of what is defined as targeting. It doesn’t just refer to a hit to the head or neck of a defenseless opponent.
Targeting can also be called when “the crown of the helmet is used to make forcible contact,” as stated in Rule 9-1-3. The crown of the helmet, as defined by the rulebook, is synonymous with the top of the helmet. And it does appear that McDowell lowered and led with the crown of his helmet in making this hit on Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow.
So be mad at the rule, because it appears that the referees accurately assessed the situation based on what the rulebook tells them to do.
Ultimately, this game was defined by critical errors at critical moments. Both teams went into halftime with a paltry seven penalties for 60 yards. While Indiana finished the game with those same numbers, Michigan State tacked on four more penalties for 38 yards.
The targeting call hurt Michigan State’s defense for the remainder of the game. The multiple sacks and the leaping call all came at points when the Spartans desperately needed to remain mistake-free. This hasn’t been the disciplined team MSU fans have come to expect.