Can a team feel good about another loss? No, but Michigan State did find positives in its 32-23 loss on Saturday to No. 2 Michigan at Spartan Stadium. The trick will be to take those and carry them into the final four games of the season.
The Spartans outscored Michigan 13-5 in the second half, all of which came in the fourth quarter after the teams played a scoreless third quarter. Why is that significant? It’s the first time this season Michigan State outscored an opponent in the fourth quarter and just the second time it “won” the second half of a game. Michigan State outscored Furman 14-10 in the second half of the season opener but hadn’t outscored any of its last six opponents after halftime until Saturday.
The Spartans travel to Champaign, Ill., on Saturday for a noon (ET) kickoff against Illinois. The teams haven’t faced each other since 2013, and this will be just the fourth time they’ve played in the Mark Dantonio era at Michigan State.
Offense (2.5 stars)
A resurgent fourth quarter in which Tyler O’Connor, Damion Terry and Brian Lewerke all played quarterback helped raise the grade. So did finding the run game, which produced 211 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per attempt against a Michigan defense that came into the game allowing just 96 yards rushing per game. LJ Scott ran for 139 yards and one touchdown, adding another 47 yards receiving in what was his best game of the season.
The offensive line got its most consistent push of the season, but there still were times when the offense was stagnate as a whole. The first three drives produced 153 yards and 10 points. The next four produced just 77 yards and no points. Michigan State converted just 1 of 4 fourth-down attempts and was 4 of 11 on third downs. Six trips to the red zone produced three touchdowns and three no scores.
The passing game showed up in the fourth quarter after Michigan had built a 20-point lead, but it needs to be more reliable and complementary of the run game earlier. O’Connor and Lewerke each threw touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, and Terry led a drive that resulted in a missed field goal.
Defense (2 stars)
Michigan scored on all five of its first-half possessions and on six of its first seven drives before the defense finally started to figure things out. It forced punts on three straight possessions, two of them without allowing a first down, and gave the Spartans a chance to creep back into the game.
Seven freshmen got snaps on defense — a good reason why the unit looks lost at times. Michigan had nine plays of 15 or more yards in the first half but only three after halftime. Cornerback Darian Hicks got just the sixth interception of the season for the Spartans, and his 42-yard return gave the offense outstanding field position in Michigan territory. The offense didn’t capitalize, but those are the sort of potentially momentum-turning plays the defense hasn’t made all season.
Special teams (3 stars)
The coverage units, along with kickoff specialist Kevin Cronin and punter Jake Hartbarger, did a good job containing Michigan’s dangerous returners, including Jabrill Peppers. Michigan State’s own return game still isn’t providing much help in flipping field position, although R.J. Shelton has been close to breaking a couple of kickoffs for big returns the last couple of weeks.
Michael Geiger made the first 50-yard field goal of his career when he had plenty of distance on a 52-yard kick in the second quarter to cut Michigan’s lead to 14-10. He missed from 34 yards, however, in the fourth quarter when Michigan State had a chance to cut into Michigan’s 30-10 lead.
Coaching (2.5 stars)
The rush offense seems to have been fixed and the defense found its groove in the second half, but this team remains inconsistent and makes too many mistakes that it can’t afford to make. Playcalling on offense was curious at times, such as in the third quarter when Michigan had a goal-line stand, stopping the Spartans on six run plays from inside the 10. Offensive coordinator Dave Warner and Dantonio wanted to send a message by pounding the ball into the end zone instead of finding a different route to a touchdown. Michigan State is still committing too many penalties (seven for minus-57 yards vs. Michigan). The Spartans also had one official turnover (an O’Connor interception), plus one that doesn’t go in the books (fumble on 2-point conversion), accounting for a swing of as much as seven points.
Overall (2.5 stars)
Michigan State was the decided underdog going into the game but kept it close early and then rallied late. It was the middle part that hurt. If this game happens last year, it would have been a bigger disappointment than it is now. This season, it is a game that, though resulting in a sixth consecutive loss, can also be seen as a harbinger of good things to come with games against Illinois and Rutgers ahead.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo