CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It’s a different week but the story remains the same for Michigan State.
The Spartans lost for the seventh straight game but this one was the most improbable. Illinois is in complete rebuilding mode under first-year coach Lovie Smith, but the Illini made the most of their chances while Michigan State … well, Michigan State didn’t. The result was a 31-27 loss in a game that proves without a doubt that nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to this edition of the Spartans.
“We’ve got to finish the fourth quarter,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve got to come in here and say that, but that’s what it seems like. We’ve got to finish in the fourth quarter. We almost did.”
Almost is the optimum word in that last sentence.
Almost is a word that been associated with Michigan State football far too often this season.
The Spartans are now 2-7. They are 0-6 in the Big Ten. They’ve never been 0-6 in the Big Ten. The losing streak matches the longest for the program since 1982.
They have only themselves to blame. Looking up and down the stat sheet, it would be virtually — or almost — impossible to tell that Michigan State lost this game.
- Michigan State had twice as many first downs as Illinois, 28-14, which was a big reason it had the ball for 41 minutes, 36 seconds of the game.
- Outgained Illinois 490-304.
- Out of 13 possessions for Michigan State, 10 ended in Illinois territory.
- Michigan State’s defense forced Illinois to go three-and-out on its first five possessions and seven times in 13 possessions.
The “almost” part comes when you find that two of the things Michigan State does as bad as any team in the Big Ten and the country — commit penalties and finish drives — came back to bite them in the end.
The Spartans committed 10 penalties for 89 yards. Six of the penalties were offensive line-related and led directly to Michigan State scoring just two touchdowns and four field goals on those drives in Illinois territory.
“At the end of the day, we have to get back and do the little things. The details are so critical,” senior WR R.J. Shelton said. “On the offensive side, the things we can control we need to control — the penalties, the offsides, hand placement, running routes for wide receivers, quarterback check-downs or running back picking up blocks. It’s not anyone individually; it’s a team, especially on (the offensive) side. We need to come together against Rutgers next weekend.”
Shelton made a play when his team needed him. His 13-yard touchdown reception from Damion Terry with 2:52 left to play should have been a game-winner.
Instead, Illinois redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr. looked like his dad, former Illinois great and NFL No. 1 overall pick Jeff George Sr., on a 4-play drive he capped off with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Sam Mays. It took the Illini just 1:17 to go 75 yards.
Two pass interference penalties contributed to the drive.
“You’ve got to get off (the field),” Dantonio said with more than a hint of disgust in his former defensive coordinator voice. “It’s two minutes to go in the game. What was it, (four) plays? (Four) plays. Blown coverage. Two PIs. It was quick.”
Illinois had 21 yards through its first five possessions. It had 151 on its next two drives, both of which ended in Kendrick Foster touchdown runs. The Illini’s four touchdown drives were all more than 70 yards in distance. Illinois didn’t gain more than nine yards on any other drive.
“Big plays killed us,” senior LB Riley Bullough said. “As a defense we were confident. We felt like we had a good game plan and we were executing it. In the second half they made some plays. Football’s a game of momentum. We tried to get it back. We still played decent football other than a few plays here and there that ended up killing us.”
In other words, almost.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo