EAST LANSING, Mich. – No Mark Dantonio team at Michigan State had ever allowed 50 points in a game since he became the Spartans coach in 2007. There were some games that came close but half of one hundred was never reached by an opponent.
Until Saturday, that is.
Northwestern is a team that scored seven points in a home loss to FCS member Illinois State this season. The Wildcats on this Saturday might as well have been Kurt Warner and the old St. Louis Rams “Greatest Show on Turf” team the way they went up and down the field on Michigan State in a 54-40 defeat of the Spartans at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State had leads of 14-0 and 17-7 but Northwestern scored 26 consecutive points to take the lead and then added a 14-0 run after the Spartans closed to within two points, 33-31, with a little more than two minutes to play in the third quarter.
Michigan State allowed a season-high 490 yards of offense to Northwestern. Junior RB Justin Jackson had 188 yards and two touchdowns rushing. That’s three straight games Michigan State has allowed a 100-yard rusher. Senior WR Austin Carr caught 11 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore QB Clayton Thorson completed 27 of 35 passes for 281 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
This defensive unit is a shell of what has been a staple of Dantonio teams and there don’t seem to be any answers on how to fix it.
“I’m used to seeing the previous nine years when the first person gets there, even if he just hangs on, the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh guys get there bam-bam-bam-bam,” said co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, emphasizing the final part of his sentence with rapid-fire hand smacking. “I’m not seeing that now. It’s not just the initial guy that’s there. It’s the next five, six, seven, eight, nine hats that make you look like a good football team. A good tackling football team.”
New high in lows
Northwestern became the first team to score more than 50 points against Michigan State in the Mark Dantonio era Saturday. Here’s a look at the five highest point totals allowed by Michigan State in the last 10 seasons.
|Ohio State||49-37||11/8/2014||Michigan State|
|Alabama||49-7||1/1/2011||Capital One Bowl|
|Penn State||49-18||11/22/2008||Penn State|
Even the return of senior linebacker and captain Riley Bullough wasn’t enough to provide anything more than an initial surge of energy and emotion. Bullough missed the last three games with an undisclosed injury. He came back and contributed 12 tackles, but once again, the defense proved unable to help itself by getting off the field when it had the chance on third down or via a turnover.
That’s not entirely true. Northwestern’s first three possessions were three-and-out, a 43-yard interception returned for a touchdown by Michigan State freshman Justin Layne, and then another three-and-out.
Then the Wildcats scored on five of their next six possessions. They added two more touchdown drives in the fourth quarter when the Spartans attempted to rally.
“The first quarter we were dominant,” said safety Demetrious Cox, another captain. “We’ve got to have that same mentality throughout the whole game.”
Tackling, or rather the lack of tackling, was a theme throughout post-game talk.
“That’s just a mentality that we’ve had,” said Cox of gang-tackling. “You can’t be afraid to miss tackles or you’ll miss tackles. A part of that is, if you miss a tackle the other 10 guys on defense are running to have your back. That’s really part of it.”
In a not-so-shocking stat, Michigan State is now 1-11 under Dantonio when it allows 40 points or more. The Spartans aren’t built to win a lot of shootouts. The one win came against Baylor in the Cotton Bowl following the 2014 season when the Spartans rallied to score the final 21 points of the game for a 42-41 victory. In that game, the defense made plays when it needed to make them and shut down Baylor at the right time.
There are no plays being made consistently on defense when the Spartans need them to be made. As spectacular as Layne’s interception return was, he showed that he was playing just his second game at cornerback when he lost coverage on Flynn Nagel on the opening possession of the third quarter. Thorson hit Nagel in stride down the left sideline on a wheel route for a 57-yard touchdown that put up Northwestern 26-17.
Two weeks ago Layne played his first college game at Indiana. He was playing wide receiver.
“Justin Layne is a very talented player. He’s a tough player. He’s very explosive,” Tressel said. “He’s going to be very, very good but he has to learn a lot fast. We’re going to have some growing pains but obviously we can’t allow those growing pains to be big ones. They can’t be 60-yard touchdown passes.
“That’s on us as coaches.”
This is a game Michigan State thought it could win. It was a game it could win. But this isn’t the same Michigan State team we’ve seen in the past few seasons. It especially isn’t the same defense.
Even in this day and age of high-flying college offenses, Michigan State doesn’t give up 50 points.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo