Michigan State football: A stark return to reality in 49-7 loss to Iowa
Beating Michigan was a wild fantasy that materialized. Michigan State was never really expected to compete with anyone in 2020. This is a complete rebuilding year, after all.
Well, reality came back in Iowa City, and it struck hard.
Michigan State was soundly thumped in every aspect of the game in Iowa’s 49-7 win over the Spartans, its first in four tries. It is the most lopsided loss the Spartans have had since a 48-3 setback to Ohio State in 2017. It looked much more like Week 1’s loss to Rutgers than Week 2’s joy ride against Michigan.
One of the main reasons Michigan State was so successful against the Wolverines was QB Rocky Lombardi’s long strikes to multiple receivers and the team’s ability to play a turnover-free game after coughing up the ball 7 times against the Scarlet Knights. From Michigan State’s opening drive that ended in the first of Lombardi’s 3 interceptions, Saturday’s version of the Spartans looked nothing like the team that shocked Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
Frankly, it matched most observers’ preseason expectations for Year 1 under Mel Tucker, and more of the same is likely to follow in MSU’s remaining 5 games.
Due largely to a left knee injury for that forced him to wear a brace and greatly limited his mobility, Lombardi looked like the inexperienced passer who connected on just 42.8% of his 175 passes prior to this season.
All 3 of his interceptions were ill-advised throws into traffic after he rolled out of the pocket facing stiff pressure. The third interception, which Iowa returned for a touchdown, looked like a result of Lombardi’s injured plant-leg just completely giving out. To his credit, Lombardi played nearly the entire game despite the injury. If there was ever an excuse for Jay Johnson to pull the plug at halftime and give Theo Day or Payton Thorne an audition, it was this game, but the coaching staff rode Lombardi until midway through the fourth quarter.
On a brighter note for the passing offense, Jalen Nailor made 2 catches of at least 50 yards. The Spartans have now had 6 pass plays of 40 or more yards. They had 5 all of 2019.
MICHIGAN STATE’S OFFENSE DID SOMETHING! Rocky Lombardi to Jalen Nailor for 57 yards! pic.twitter.com/wiytk9PB3B
— . (@FTBBurner11) November 7, 2020
With that being said, Ricky White had a major regression after going off for nearly 200 yards against the Wolverines. The freshman receiver had just 1 catch against the Hawkeyes.
Running, which was thought to be this team’s strength during the offseason, continues to be a major question mark as the high watermark this season is 55 yards from Jordon Simmons against Michigan. The Spartans finished with 59 rushing yards against Iowa, again led by Simmons’ 34 yards. Elijah Collins had 7 carries, which is the most work he’s gotten this year after nearly eclipsing 1,000 yards in 2019.
Michigan State’s offense had 7 three-and-outs and 1 turnover on downs on 15 possessions. The only touchdown was scored by Tyler Hunt, a former third-string punter.
Defensively, Michigan State was destroyed by Iowa’s pre-snap motion and its own repeated poor field position. Antjuan Simmons and Jacub Panasiuk were in and out with injuries, but even when they were on the field, Spencer Petras and a collection of Hawkeyes running backs had their way.
Iowa thrived on short screens to the sidelines that forced Spartans linebackers to move outside a lot, thus opening lanes for a play like Tyler Goodson’s 71-yard rush.
Michigan State’s pass rush was absent, recording just 1 sack, giving plenty of time for Petras to find open receivers. The Hawkeyes weren’t forced into a single turnover.
Special teams dropped an equally abysmal performance, lowlighted by the Spartans’ punting — something they had to do often.
Iowa’s Charlie Jones had three giant punt returns. His first went for 27 yards, his second was another big return wiped away by a block in the back, and his third went 54 yards for a touchdown, facilitated by a line-drive punt from Michigan State’s own end zone.
CHARLIE JONES TO THE HOUSE pic.twitter.com/0ofV7CBRhF
— HeavensFX (@HeavensFX) November 7, 2020
From the opening to final whistle, it was complete domination by the Hawkeyes. When held in comparison to the Michigan game, it looks even worse, but the bottom line is that this is much closer to the team Michigan State will be for the remainder of the year.
The real questions going forward are whether Lombardi will maintain his status as starter and how effective Tucker can be at keeping his players invested in a season that is likely to get ugly.
The win in Ann Arbor was a nice break from 2020, but the Spartans better buckle in because the rest of this season is about to get bumpy.