EAST LANSING, Mich. – It takes some digging to find a day like the one Michigan State experienced Saturday afternoon. All teams lose games now and again, some more than others, but one thing you can count on from the Spartans is that they will be in the game. They won’t get blown out.
Granted, the 38-0 national semifinal loss to Alabama at the Cotton Bowl last season is still fresh in the minds, but losses like the 30-6 manhandling Wisconsin put on Michigan State at Spartan Stadium are shockers. Not since Oct. 30, 2010, at Iowa when the Hawkeyes beat it 37-6 has Michigan State lost a regular season game by more than the 24 points they lost by Saturday. It’s been since Nov. 21, 2009, during a 42-14 loss to Penn State that this kind of margin of defeat has been witnessed at Spartan Stadium.
These things just don’t happen to the team from East Lansing. They certainly don’t happen to it in East Lansing.
Yet, that’s exactly how Saturday played out. A 13-6 deficit at halftime seemed a much larger gap as Wisconsin was winning the battles at the line of scrimmage. It became a much larger gap with less than four minutes left in the third quarter as Wisconsin forced mistake after mistake by the Spartans.
“People have been saying a lot of good things about us lately,” said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. “Now, we’ll take some shots.”
Michigan State knows its identity as a program. It knows it’s a run-first, play shut-down defense and don’t-turn-the-ball-over program. This is not a flashy program. This team needs to discover its own identity within that scope. Wisconsin that identity from the Spartans.
“(The Badgers) came in and did what they needed to do,” said senior wide receiver R.J. Shelton, who was limited to three receptions and 23 yards after totaling nearly 100 yards of total offense at Notre Dame last week. “They came in with a game plan and executed it. On our side, we came out flat. We needed to come out and match their energy. It’s on us. Players play, coaches coach. We’ve got to get ourselves ready to play as players. We came out flat. That won’t happen again. You’ve got to flush it, learn from it and move on to the next game. We’ve still got our goals in front of us.”
The top goal for Michigan State is winning the Big Ten East and getting back to the Big Ten championship game in December. This loss puts a dent in those ideas but, like losses to Notre Dame in 2013 and Nebraska last season, it’s only a dent.
What led to the dent is the disconcerting part of the story.
The Spartans committed four turnovers – five, if you include a high snap that punter Jake Hartbarger was unable to handle until he had a bevy of Badgers on top of him at the Michigan State 5-yard line. A week after outscoring Notre Dame 15-0 on turnovers, Michigan State was outscored 20-3 on its giveaways, if the turnover on downs is included.
The Spartans did a good job on first- and second-down situations defensively, but Wisconsin did what it wanted on third down. The Badgers, with redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook making his first career start, had 10 third-down attempts in the first half. They converted seven, then twice converted fourth-and-1 plays when the third-down yardage wasn’t enough. Hornibrook completed passes to convert third-and-8 or longer five times.
Michigan State actually outgained Wisconsin, 325-317, but that stat is misleading since many yards came when the game had essentially been decided. One week after rushing for 260 yards at Notre Dame, Michigan State gained just 75 yards on 27 carries against Wisconsin. L.J. Scott gained 61 yards on 14 carries. The fumble he lost in the third quarter after a hard hit by Wisconsin safety D’Cota Dixon was returned for more yards (66) than Scott gained and earned as many points (six) as the Spartans scored.
“I don’t think that the game flip-flopped drastically because of our abilities,” said Dantonio. “I think we made mistakes. They forced us into mistakes, and they should be congratulated for that. The mistakes were made, and you can’t overcome those types of mistakes.”
After a week of feeling good about themselves, the Spartans will have the next week to pick themselves back up. They’ve got a trip to Bloomington next Saturday night to face Indiana in a game that would be much more than a dent should they lose.
“It is just a mindset,” said senior safety Demetrious Cox. “We have to fight through the adversity. It’s what we do. We will watch the film tomorrow, go over all of our mistakes and see the little things we did wrong. We’ll get a lift in, work out, and we will get our swagger back. We’ll be all right.”
There has been talk about Michigan State not getting the level of respect it deserves on a national basis. That talk will simmer now.
Now the Spartans can just work on figuring out who they are.