COLUMBUS, Ohio — Michigan State sure hasn’t looked like the team that has handed Urban Meyer two of his five losses at Ohio State.
The Spartans began the season ranked in the top 10 and looked impressive by beating Notre Dame. Since then, the win against the Irish lost its quality. More importantly, however, the Spartans cratered their way to a seven-game losing streak. The lone bright spot during that stretch came when Michigan State put up a fight in a 32-23 loss to Michigan. Given their performance in that game, it’s at least possible to envision the Spartans testing Ohio State.
Q: What finally clicked for Michigan State against Rutgers (other than, well, playing Rutgers)?
Goheen: Honestly, everything. Yes, a lot of it was Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have a long way to go before they can compete in the Big Ten on a week-in, week-out basis. However, they had pushed Iowa, Minnesota and Indiana before falling this season. Michigan State has had leads in games this season but never played add-on before last Saturday. Whenever it got a lead, opponents were able to stop the momentum and reverse it. That didn’t happen against Rutgers. A 14-0 lead became 21-0 at the end of the first quarter and then 35-0 at halftime. There’s something to be said about putting the foot on the pedal and then not letting up.
Q: Why has Michigan State been so bad in the red zone this season on both sides of the ball?
Goheen: The offensive and defensive lines. Sounds simple but one thing you’ve always been able to count on with a Mark Dantonio team is that it would at minimum hold its own at the line of scrimmage. That hasn’t been the case this season. The offensive line was in flux for the first half of the season before settling in on a starting five. It added redshirt freshman Tyler Higby at left guard, but he was lost for the season last week with a broken ankle. Redshirt freshman Cole Chewins has taken over at left tackle and has a bright future, but playing first- or second-year players hasn’t been Michigan State’s formula for success. The defensive line lost starters Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas from last season. Their replacements have been grad transfers and freshmen — in other words, first-year starters in the system. To win in the red zone, you have to win at the line of scrimmage. That hasn’t happened.
Q: How does it affect MSU if Malik McDowell does/doesn’t play?
Goheen: If you lose a projected high first-round NFL draft pick it should hurt a position group, but I’m going to go the other way. McDowell is a legit prospect and has the ability to disrupt any play. However, one thing that has hurt him this season is that he’s been the sole object of the opposing team’s focus. They figure if they contain McDowell, they’ve beaten the front line of the Michigan State defense. They’ve been correct.
McDowell didn’t play last week and the defensive line went with a starting lineup of true freshmen Josh King and Mike Panasiuk, redshirt freshman Raequan Williams and sophomore Robert Bowers. There was a rotation system in place, but the defensive line played arguably its best game of the season. It wasn’t waiting for McDowell to save it or make the big play. It’s got a huge challenge this week against Ohio State. However, that would be the case even if McDowell was to play.
Q: How is the program and fan base handling going from a top-10 ranking to the bottom of the Big Ten?
Goheen: Surprisingly well. People are upset and disappointed. However, the die-hard fans and boosters realize that in the past nine seasons Michigan State has achieved levels the program has never achieved before in this sustained of a period. It has had five 11-win seasons in the past six years. It has been a Top-25 team six of the last eight years. Dantonio has built up more than enough cache to survive one bad season. The younger classes show talent but have played sooner than typical for this program. It’s been a season of growing pains.
Q: Can MSU replicate what it did against Michigan to give itself a chance to win vs. Ohio State?
Goheen: Yes, but it will have to play its best game of the season to make that happen. That means not committing penalties (it is last in the Big Ten in penalty yards), winning the turnover battle (it’s a minus-3) and scoring touchdowns in the red zone when it gets there. The Spartans were 5 for 5 scoring touchdowns in the red zone against Rutgers. However, that raised their season average to just 64 percent. They failed to scored any points in as many red-zone possessions (five) as they did touchdowns in 13 chances against Michigan and Illinois in a two-week span. They don’t have any margin for error if they want to beat Ohio State for a second straight season.