EAST LANSING, Mich. – Mark Dantonio keeps saying every time you think things are as bad as they can possibly get, they get worse. Things continue to get worse for Dantonio and his Michigan State Spartans.
The Spartans gave up 26 consecutive points to Northwestern after building a 17-7 lead in the second quarter and fell to the Wildcats, 54-40, Saturday afternoon at Spartan Stadium. It was Michigan State’s fourth straight loss after starting the season 2-0. It is Michigan State’s first four-game losing streak since 2006. The Spartans also drop to 0-3 in the Big Ten. Redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke started the game at quarterback after a week-long competition involving him, senior Tyler O’Connor and redshirt junior Damion Terry. The change at quarterback combined with a Homecoming crowd provided plenty of energy and emotion for the Spartans but they were not able to sustain either.
The 54 points were the most allowed by a Dantonio team in his Michigan State career.
O’Connor entered the game in the third quarter and led the offense to three touchdowns but the defense gave up 490 yards of offense to Northwestern, including 188 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries to running back Justin Jackson and 130 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 11 catches to wide receiver Austin Carr. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson completed 27 of 35 passes for 281 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
Five things we learned
- It’s not about the quarterback. Lewerke started the game hot, producing 110 yards of offense with one touchdown in the first quarter. O’Connor threw a pair of long touchdown passes to R.J. Shelton and a third to Donnie Corley. Neither was perfect, but the troubles and inconsistencies along the offensive and defensive lines still stand out as the most pressing issues for the Spartans.
- Youth can be really exciting. It can also be very dangerous. Justin Layne was playing wide receiver two weeks ago at Indiana when he made his collegiate debut. He was moved to defense last week and got a new number this week (39) to reflect his position change. Layne gave Michigan State a 14-0 lead in the first quarter with a 43-yard interception return for a touchdown but he and linebacker Andrew Dowell got caught in the middle of confusion, a mistake that left Flynn Nagel wide open down the left sideline for a 57-yard touchdown reception on Northwestern’s opening possession of the third quarter and a 26-17 lead for the Wildcats.
- Special teams for Michigan State continue to be not special at all. Solomon Vault’s 95-yard kickoff return stymied Michigan State’s comeback late in the third quarter. Kevin Cronin had his fourth kickoff go out of bounds on the season in the first quarter. Punter Jake Hartbarger shanked a punt following Northwestern’s safety in the second quarter, setting up a short field that the Wildcats used to start a field goal drive. Sophomore Brandon Sowards had the roughest day of all, however. It was his penalty that wiped out a sizable kickoff return and instead left the Spartans near their own goal line, setting up the sack of Lewerke for a safety. Sowards also failed to come up fast enough and catch a low, line drive punt in the first quarter, then allowed the ball to bounce past him all the way to the Michigan State 10. The Spartans punted after gaining seven yards. Northwestern got the ball back on its own 39 where it started its first touchdown drive of the game.
- It’s been said every week, but third-down play by the defense is awful. Northwestern converted 10 of 18 third-down attempts Saturday. Over the four-game losing streak, opponents have converted 54.5 percent (36 of 66) of their third downs.
- It’s great to see Riley Bullough back in uniform. The senior linebacker returned after missing the last three games with an undisclosed injury. His return helped bring some of that initial energy and emotion but, like everything else on Saturday, it wasn’t enough.
Michigan State had climbed back to within two points, 33-31, with 2:08 left in the third quarter on an 86-yard touchdown pass by O’Connor to Shelton but Northwestern’s Solomon Vault squashed that momentum with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Northwestern scored on its next possession as well to rebuild a 16-point lead.
Does it matter who is playing quarterback for Michigan State? Not really. O’Connor will probably be re-inserted into the starting role after going 13 of 21 for 281 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. This team has many more issues than its quarterback.
Can Michigan State do enough to become bowl eligible? The Spartans have six games left and need to win four of them to get to six wins and be bowl eligible. With two games coming up against Michigan and Ohio State, the Spartans are on the edge of not going to a bowl this season.
Justin Jackson become the third consecutive opposing running back to rush for more than 100 yards against Michigan State. I’m not sure even Elias can figure out the last time that happened.
What it means
More consternation from the Michigan State faithful and another week of soul searching for the Spartans. They have to find something to be confident about, and that won’t be easy.