EAST LANSING, Mich. – Tuesday was the first day back on the practice field for Michigan State since losing a second game in a row, 24-21 in overtime at Indiana last Saturday. Losing isn’t customary around here. It has only happened on five occasions in the three previous seasons. Losing once is one thing. Twice in row?
Something’s wrong with the Spartans. What is it? Can it be fixed?
Those are questions the team is asking itself. They are questions the upperclassmen wanted to address before they went out to the practice field.
“We told coach (Mark Dantonio) that we wanted to talk to the team for a minute and we had a players and coaches meeting,” senior tight end Josiah Price said. “We talked to everybody. We just kept it real and told them how it is and what we’ve got to do to excel.”
Junior center Brian Allen was more blunt in his view of the meeting.
“We’ve got to get everyone on the same page and let them know that what’s happened here in the last two weeks is something that’s embarrassing and shouldn’t happen here,” Allen said. “We have the talent and the attitude that the guys have passed on to us. We can’t let it drop off. We’ve got to keep going. That’s been evident in the last two weeks that it hasn’t been there.
“We just talked about Spartan dogs, and guys aren’t playing like that right now. Guys don’t have that attitude and we’ve got to re-find that and show the young guys what that is. Maybe we’ve done a crappy job of passing that on, but we need to get that going.”
That’s the attitude side of the equation, but there is more that’s ailing Michigan State. This is a team that two weeks ago was ranked in the top 10 nationally and eying matchups with Michigan and Ohio State as a way to show everyone not to again underestimate it. Now this team is just trying to figure a way to beat Brigham Young on Saturday and get itself righted before returning to Big Ten play on Oct. 15 against Northwestern.
Let’s take a closer look at five issues facing the Spartans and whether or not they are fixable.
Issue: Explosive plays on defense
When opponents are averaging almost 14 yards every time they complete a pass, that’s a glaring weakness that will continue to be attacked. Michigan State has struggled to put its pass rush and coverage together. Pressure comes one play, but coverage isn’t what it needs to be. The next time it’s the coverage that’s tight, but no one is pressuring the quarterback. Receivers can only be covered for so long.
As much as anything, this is about young, developing personnel. Of the players listed on the depth chart this week, there are 18 first- or second-year players on the defensive line and secondary. Talent is good. Talent with experience is better. Right now, there is an experience factor that is missing and that can only be gained so fast.
The Spartans committed 10 penalties in the season opener against Furman, but got away with them in the 28-13 win. They didn’t get away with being called for 11 penalties at Indiana. There were seven flags on the offense (three for false starts, four for holding) and two each on the defense and special teams – sloppiness that is uncharacteristic of this program.
This is a problem that can be handled in practice. When Allen called the last two weeks “embarrassing,” it was a reference to mistakes like penalties.
Issue: The fourth quarter
The Spartans have been outscored 35-14 in the fourth quarter. They nearly lost a big lead at Notre Dame. They did lose a lead at Indiana, only to have the offense behind quarterback Tyler O’Connor respond with a touchdown drive that tied the score with 11 seconds left in regulation and sent the game into overtime.
That drive is reason for hope. That was one of the best drives of the season and it happened under pressure.
It was 13 plays for 75 yards in 4 minutes, 27 seconds without any penalties. Allen was hurt in the middle of the drive and replaced by right tackle Kodi Kieler, but players did not panic. Yes, they lost the game in overtime, but this was positive moment that can be used by coaches and players to show things can get better.
Issue: Freshmen wide receivers
This falls in line with the issue facing the defensive line and secondary, but Dantonio pointed out publicly the mistakes of three freshmen wide receivers – Donnie Corley, Trishton Jackson and Justin Layne – that hurt the team against Indiana. Corley, who has been very good so far, dropped a perfectly thrown deep ball in the third quarter after beating his defender down the sideline. Dantonio mentioned that receivers were running the wrong routes, or, in one instance, didn’t run a route because they thought it was a running play.
Such growing pains that will get better with time, although these freshmen need to know what to do on the field.
Issue: Nothing in return
The special teams haven’t been so special when it comes to returning kicks and punts. A big return can provide energy and emotion, not to mention better field position, but Michigan State is getting none of that from its return game. The Spartans are No. 102 out of 128 FBS teams by averaging 18.6 yards on kickoff returns. They are 85th in punt returns, averaging 6.2 yards per return.
Redshirt freshman Darrell Stewart Jr. and sophomore Brandon Sowards are getting more opportunities with senior R.J. Shelton more involved in the offense. The blocking in front of them has to create better chances at making bigger returns.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo