Spirits just keep getting shattered in East Lansing, Mich.
There had been plenty of questions about Michigan State coming into Saturday’s game against Northwestern. Could the secondary hold up against Austin Carr, one of the Big Ten’s best receivers? Could the defensive line put pressure on the Wildcats’ Clayton Thorson like it has to a few quarterbacks this season?
You would think so, considering how this Northwestern team scored only seven points against FCS foe Illinois State. Seven. Also, the answer to those questions turned out to be a resounding ‘no,’ as Michigan State gave up 54 points, the most allowed by the program under Mark Dantonio’s watch.
But before we get into what’s gone wrong defensively, let’s talk offense.
The lack of a running game
Admittedly, it’s tough to be too upset with the Michigan State offense after this performance. The Spartans put up their highest scoring output of the season, and credit for that needs to largely go to the offense, even though seven points came off an interception returned for a touchdown by receiver-turned-cornerback Justin Layne.
Still, this offense accumulated 475 yards of offense, nearly 100 more than its average for the season. But 424 of those yards came through the air. The Spartans’ three throwers (R.J. Shelton had two attempts to go along with Tyler O’Connor and Brian Lewerke) had a combined 42 passing attempts, while three running backs combined for 11 attempts.
The Michigan State staff has obviously taken up a mentality of switching rotations regularly until something works and someone consistently proves himself on the field. That’s most obvious at quarterback, but it has stretched to essentially all positions.
But when does it go too far? Michigan State rushed for 71 yards in the first quarter. It then proceeded to lose three, nine and eight yards, respectively, through the final three quarters. That amounts to 51 yards overall.
What happened to LJ Scott? He accounted for nearly half that total (25 yards) on three attempts. His first went for a menial two yards. Then on the next drive, he broke off this 23-yard rush.
There you see the weakness of the Northwestern defensive line. The strength is in the ends, even without Xavier Washington, who missed the game due to injury. The Wildcats field athletic players who can beat you on the outside and get to the quarterback, but they have often struggled to stop inside runs, whereas Michigan State has prided itself in the past on winning games in the trenches.
This all makes it incredibly confusing as to why the run was completely abandoned. Scott came in for that aforementioned run, got one more carry in the third quarter, and that was it. Certainly, the Spartans needed to air the ball out in the fourth quarter when they trailed with little time to go, but what about in the second and third?
Only Madre London got any carries in the second quarter. He finished with six yards on three attempts, whereas Scott went back to the bench after he broke off his team’s best rush of the day. There seems to be a commitment to a rotation that overrides the necessity to stay with what has worked. Maybe the idea that something finally worked for the worst rushing attack in the Big Ten caught this team by surprise.
And how about the defense?
Where do you even start? This team gave up 490 yards total. It allowed a career-high 188 rushing yards to Northwestern running back Justin Jackson, and it allowed 11 catches, 130 yards and two touchdowns to Carr. Oh, and did we mention it gave up 54 points?
It starts in the secondary. The Spartans missed Darian Hicks, who had struggled at times but still earned the starting spot. But they had apparently been so dissatisfied with cornerback play that they brought over Layne from the offensive side of the ball.
Layne, as previously mentioned, snuffed out Thorson’s pass for a pick-six early in the game. But he also showed his lack of experience in a miscommunication with linebacker Andrew Dowell, leaving receiver Flynn Nagel wide open for a touchdown.
Then there were the missed tackles. You don’t want your secondary to have to serve as the last line of defense after a running back has broken down your defensive line and linebacking corps. But it happens.
It happened multiple times to Vayante Copeland. The first came on Jackson’s first touchdown, when he got Copeland off balance and put him on the ground. Copeland has to be able to make that play in open space, but Jackson’s shiftiness got the better of him.
A big reason why the secondary has been so maligned this season, besides its own performance, is the pressure put on it by a front seven failing to do its job by pressuring the quarterback.
It has happened so often this season. Opposing quarterbacks have been able to stand confidently in the pocket and find receivers with little pressure from the Spartans. Michigan State currently sits at No. 120 in the nation with a paltry average of one sack per game.
Coming into the game against Northwestern, MSU had failed to sack the quarterback in two straight games, but the Wildcats are a team that had allowed 16 sacks in their five previous games to start the season. If it was ever going to happen for the Spartans’ pass rush, this was the time.
It didn’t happen. Michigan State posted one sack on the day and consistently allowed Thorson the time he needed to throw. As a result, Thorson completed 27 of 35 passes for the highest single-game completion percentage of his career.
Just take a look at the pass rush on this touchdown from Thorson to Carr. Michigan State sends seven players, one of whom jumps early and makes this a free play for the Wildcats. Still, Thorson comfortably takes his three-step drop and doesn’t have to move anymore before he lets it go.
The run defense is one thing, as the Spartans have now allowed 100-yard rushers in three straight games. But as long as quarterbacks continue to have as much time to throw as they have had against Michigan State, this defense will make average offenses look spectacular.
What did we miss?
Well, the special teams certainly didn’t do their part either for Michigan State. Brandon Sowards had a tough day, highlighted by a punt that he should have caught that rolled deep into Michigan State territory in the first half.
And then there was the Solomon Vault kickoff return for a touchdown. Right after Michigan State had built some momentum behind two long touchdown passes from O’Connor to Shelton, Vault immediately stifled the momentum. The deficit had been limited to 33-31, and that made it 40-31.
That was probably the biggest play of the game and showed in the most gut-wrenching fashion that the Wildcats would answer every threat of a comeback from MSU. It showed the utmost importance of special teams, because, even if a team has a good offense and defense (which Michigan State certainly doesn’t right now), kick and punt returns can quickly lose a game to a team that had otherwise been outplayed.
On Saturday, Michigan State won yet another first quarter battle, but lost the war. It’s been a common refrain throughout this season and one that has fans fearing the worst even after its team builds a double-digit lead. As the clock winds down, these Spartans seem to wear out much faster than their opponents do.
The defense can’t get off the field on third down, and the offense becomes more and more one-dimensional as the game progresses. So, by the fourth quarter, everything the Spartans do looks tired and predictable.
Is it fixable? The staff seems to think so. But at 2-4, we’ve reached a point where many fans already consider this season a lost cause.