The start was promising, but the middle and finish to homecoming were anything but homey for Michigan State on Saturday. The Spartans lost their fourth straight game, something that hadn’t happened previously in the Mark Dantonio era, and did it in historic fashion in a 54-40 loss to Northwestern.
Unfortunately for Dantonio and his team, most of the history that’s been made the past four weeks has been on the negative side. Northwestern’s point total is the most ever allowed by a Michigan State team under Dantonio.
The Spartans travel to Maryland (4-2, 1-2) Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff. The Terrapins have lost their last two games, to Penn State and Minnesota, by a combined score of 69-24 after a 4-0 start under first-year head coach DJ Durkin. Grading the Spartans’ loss on Saturday, on a scale of one star to five:
Offense (2 Stars)
Redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke got the start, his first, and began the day by completing 5 of 7 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter. He added another 37 yards rushing in the quarter. It was a promising beginning that faded quickly. Lewerke had just 26 more passing yards the rest of the game, and his only rushing attempt was a sack in the end zone that resulted in a safety for Northwestern.
Lewerke still ended up being Michigan State’s leading rusher with 30 yards, which speaks to the troubles of the run game. Tyler O’Connor eventually replaced Lewerke and had a fine game, throwing three touchdown passes, including two to R.J. Shelton in the third quarter that got the Spartans back to within two points, 33-31, with 2:08 left in the period.
The 51 yards rushing was the lowest total of the season. Part of the lack of a run game was dictated by the fact that the Spartans were playing from behind, often by double digits. There were also four sacks that contributed minus-34 yards. It was another less-than-stellar day for the offensive line.
Defense (1 Star)
Let’s start with the positive: The streak of no sacks ended at 10 quarters when Malik McDowell dropped Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson in the second quarter. That play actually came on a third down, which is amazing because Michigan State has rarely stopped anyone on third down this season.
Freshman cornerback Justin Layne, who two weeks ago was a wide receiver, intercepted a pass and returned it 43 yards for his first career touchdown. But Layne also showed that just two weeks ago he was playing receiver when he misread his responsibilities and left a receiver wide open for a 57-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Northwestern also converted 10 of 19 third downs Saturday and had eight possessions in Michigan State territory, seven of which ended in points. The Wildcats had a 100-yard rusher (Justin Jackson, 188 yards) and a 100-yard receiver (Austin Carr, 130 yards), who each scored two touchdowns.
There were multiple missed tackles, but as co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel pointed out, the real problem wasn’t with the first defender missing a tackle, but with the others who weren’t there to back him up. The gang-tackling execution that has been a hallmark of this program is non-existent at the moment.
For any good moment the Spartans had, there were two bad ones.
Special teams (1 Star)
The biggest play of the game was a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Northwestern’s Solomon Vault late in the third quarter, flipping momentum after the Spartans had pulled with two points. That play contributed to the Wildcats having an average drive start of their own 35-yard line; Michigan State’s average starting field position was its own 27. The Spartans had five possessions start at the 20 or worse, including one at the 10 and one at the 5 – both caused by special teams mistakes.
Edward Barksdale had a blocked punt late in the fourth quarter that Jalen Watts-Jackson returned 13 yards, but by that time Northwestern had a three-possession lead.
Coaching (1 Star)
Whatever buttons Dantonio and his staff are pushing these days, it’s not working. Lewerke was given the start at quarterback, but before the third quarter was over, O’Connor was back in the lineup.
The Spartans have consistently gotten off to good starts, but then just as consistently fade. This time the fade came in the second quarter, when the Spartans were outscored 12-3 and Northwestern held 106-3 advantage in yardage. The team didn’t give up after Northwestern took the lead, but too many mistakes across the board made it too hard to overcome.
Overall (1 Star)
Four losses in a row. Winless in the Big Ten after winning the conference title last season. This has turned into a recurring weekly nightmare for Michigan State. The question becomes whether it’s a roster problem, a coaching problem, or all of the above. Right now, the answer is: Yes.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo