EAST LANSING, Mich. — “How do you make a play?”
Michigan State co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett repeated the question. Then he sighed. Then he smiled a little bit, the kind of smile you see from someone too flummoxed to try to make sense of the situation.
As he sat at the podium, Barnett shook his head. “We’re not getting it done.” He repeated himself. “We’ve got to make the play. We’ve got to make the play.”
For as frustrated as Michigan State’s fans certainly are following Saturday’s 31-14 loss to BYU (3-2) at Spartan Stadium, few probably left as confounded as Barnett.
Ultimately, the issues come down to an inability to finish. Senior lineman Brandon Clemons, who has oscillated between offense and defense throughout his career, weighed in on the struggles of the latter.
“Most importantly, we just have to finish,” Clemons said. “I feel like we had a great first half, and then the second half, I’m not sure how many guys were tired or what happened. That’s on all of us.”
Finishing games plays a big part. Michigan State (2-3) came into Saturday’s outing having been outscored 35-21 in the fourth quarter. It faced a BYU team that had outscored opponents 55-38 in the fourth quarter. Those numbers accurately foreshadowed the 21-7 advantage BYU took in the final quarter.
It’s finishing drives, too, though. BYU converted 10 of 16 third downs, including eight of its final nine. When faced with the prospect of getting off the field and giving its floundering offense another chance, the Spartans folded.
Failure to force a single turnover might keep a coordinator awake at night, but when a team can’t even tackle consistently, that takes a backseat. Problems with fundamentals breed more widespread issues.
“It’s kind of irritating,” Clemons said. “Because of our past success, hopefully it’s a wakeup point like, you know, we’re a 2-3 team now. We have to scratch and fight for everything we can now just to make it to a bowl game. Hopefully that motivates guys to get the little things done.”
Coach Mark Dantonio wouldn’t dare to use it as an excuse, but injuries and suspensions take their toll. Losing tackles Malik McDowell (for the first half) and Raequan Williams forced Clemons to move back to defense. Linebackers Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke remain unavailable. The secondary missed Darian Hicks. MSU called upon true freshman wide receiver Justin Layne to step in at receiver.
That much roster shakeup leads to players in situations where they’re not quite comfortable yet, particularly when the defense is on the field for nearly 35 minutes of the game. Clemons suggested that the Spartans may have been worn out mentally as the game rolled on.
A three-game losing streak could be (and probably is) viewed as appalling by the Michigan State fan base. Four straight losses would be unprecedented. It hasn’t happened under Dantonio. He’s working to make sure it doesn’t happen by endorsing “change for the sake of change.”
It started with the benching of senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor, but it surely won’t end there. Especially on defense, voids keep showing themselves for less-experienced players to fill. No one has shown himself up for the task.
“There’s a reason why starters are starters,” Barnett said. “Those guys earned those positions, and the best players play. We miss that a little bit, but there’s no excuses. You’ve still got to come in and play. Whoever you are, you better come in and play, and play well.”