Michigan State arrived at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill., confident it could do what it hadn’t done since mid-September. The players and coaches felt good about winning a football game. Of all weeks, of all games to get back in the win column, this was the one where it could — and should — happen.
The Spartans left the historic grounds at the University of Illinois with a 31-27 loss, their seventh loss in a row. It was a game they statistically dominated in many ways, but stats never tell the whole story. Sports are about situations. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio refers to these as “moments.” The Spartans didn’t handle the critical moments as well as Illinois did.
The Spartans (2-7, 0-6 in Big Ten) return home next Saturday for a noon (ET) kickoff against Rutgers (2-7, 0-6) in a battle to get out of the Big Ten East basement.
Here are our grades, based on one star to five stars. Feel free to vote along with us. Here we go:
Offense (2 stars)
Michigan State gained 490 yards and controlled the clock for more than 41 minutes. The Spartans had a season-high 28 first downs, and on 10 of the 13 possessions they reached Illinois territory.
Yet somehow they managed to score just 27 points with two touchdowns, one 2-point conversion and four field goals. It’s not too hard to figure out how that happened. The offense committed seven penalties, including five on the first four possessions, which hindered its ability to finish drives. All those yards and possession time amounted to just two touchdowns and four field goals.
Illinois was credited with 10 tackles for loss.
The rushing attack was very effective the last two games against Maryland and Michigan, but it wasn’t until the fourth quarter — when Gerald Holmes got the carries — that it showed any life on Saturday. LJ Scott was held to 50 yards on 14 carries and lost a fumble that Illinois turned into a field goal.
Quarterback Tyler O’Connor left the game in the fourth quarter after suffering an apparent head injury. O’Connor did a lot of good things with his feet, escaping pressure on multiple occasions to either throw the ball away or find an open receiver. Damion Terry replaced him and led two scoring drives, and nearly a third one that would have won the game.
Defense (2 stars)
The defense forced Illinois to punt seven times after three-and-outs, including the first five possessions of the game. The Spartans held Illinois to 34 yards on eight possessions when the Illini didn’t score a touchdown.
That’s a bad qualifying statement because on the four possessions Illinois did score touchdowns, it totaled 296 yards. The Illini didn’t need much time to reach the end zone, either, as none of its touchdown drives lasted more than three minutes, 21 seconds, and two of them took less than 90 seconds to complete. All four drives came immediately after Michigan State’s offense had scored.
The final one hurt the most. Redshirt freshman Jeff George Jr. threw a 16-yard touchdown pass with 1:35 left to play that proved to be the game-winner. Linebacker Chris Frey got beat in coverage, but cornerback Tyson Smith committed two pass interference penalties on the drive to put Illinois in scoring position. They were the only two penalties committed by the defense.
The defense didn’t force any turnovers, nor did it get a sack for the fourth time in the last six games. Illinois running back Kendrick Foster rushed for 146 yards on 17 carries, including scoring on runs of 19 and 64 yards. Foster is the sixth opposing running back to gain at least 100 yards against Michigan State in the last six games.
Special teams (4 stars)
Michael Geiger salvaged four possessions by making all four field goals he attempted. That equaled the senior’s single-game high, but the Spartans want to watch Geiger kick extra points, not field goals.
Punter Jake Hartbarger over-kicked his first boot into the end zone for a touchback, but then rebounded to place two punts inside the 10-yard line and force a fair catch on another. Kickoff specialist Kevin Cronin had four touchbacks on seven attempts, and the coverage teams did well on the other three kickoffs. Michigan State won the field position battle, having an average drive start at its own 33 while Illinois averaged starting at its own 26.
Coaching (2 stars)
Start with 10 penalties for 89 yards and numerous missed opportunities. Penalties have been a constant problem each game.
The offense never figured out how to contain Illinois defensive ends Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot. Offensive coordinator Dave Warner started using some misdirection plays in the third quarter that helped alleviate pressure on O’Connor and set up Michigan State’s first touchdown of the game, but those solutions needed to happen sooner.
The defense was so good so often, but then gave up big plays to aid Illinois. Part of it is inexperience, but coaches aren’t getting through to players no matter their class when it comes to assignment discipline.
Overall (2 stars)
Seven straight losses equal the longest losing streak for the program since 1982. Illinois is in full rebuild mode under first-year coach Lovie Smith, but it hung around long enough to gain confidence.
The Illini handled the big moments of the game better than Michigan State. This very easily could have been a win. It should have been a win. But it wasn’t a win.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo