On upset alert, Spartans wilt in the heat late in loss to Arizona State
During Mark Dantonio’s dozen years at Michigan State, we’ve learned that the man can coach. There’s no disputing it. And one of the most positive things that’s said about him is that the Spartans always close out tight games.
For the moment, we’ll have to change that. Now we’ll have to say the Spartans almost always close out games.
There was a ding to that fine quality late Saturday night — or let’s be real and say early Sunday morning on Eastern time — when the Spartans blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost at Arizona State, 16-13. The deciding points — a 28-yard field goal from ASU’s Brandon Ruiz — came as time expired.
So out of character.
And so untimely, even at 2 in the morning.
And it just can’t happen, not against an unranked team and not when you’re a 6-point favorite and already placed on upset alert.
“We need to be able to convert more on third downs, be able to close out games more,” said Michigan State wide receiver Cody White, who had 9 catches for 113 yards and a touchdown. “When we get in the red zone, we’ve got to score points. We can’t rely on a field goal kicker to try to kick a field goal or we can’t turn it over in that situation. Some things we can do a little bit better.
“It’s surprising, for sure, just knowing that we’ve got to finish teams off.”
Some things they can do a lot better. What wound up costing the Spartans Saturday was a failure to execute in the end zone. They were inside the red zone four times and only scored one touchdown.
Quarterback Brian Lewerke had decent numbers — he was 27 of 39 passing for 314 yards — but he also had a terrible interception in the end zone and missed several other opportunities in the red zone. That, too, was uncharacteristic — and it just can’t happen.
And he knows it.
After a long drive, Lewerke drilled a pass toward sophomore tight end Matt Dotson in the end zone. But the ball bounced off his hands and was intercepted by Arizona State’s Dasmond Tautalatasi.
“I probably could have stepped up instead of moving to my left. “There was a little bit of pressure from the left side. (Dotson) was open, for sure, I just threw it a little high.”
There were chances down the stretch, too. Michigan’s State defense had been great, pitching a shutout for two-and-a-half quarters and allowing only two field goals deep into the fourth quarter.
Arizona State’s offense had done nothing all night, but then scored with some rapid strikes through the air. They scored a touchdown on a 27-yard pass from Manny Wilkins to N’Keal Harry with 8:45 left in the fourth quarter, which preceded a 38-yard pass from Wilkins to Kyle Williams.
Just like that, two quick passes for a combined 65 yards and bam, a tie game.
Lewerke then completed three straight passes to get into Arizona State territory. But then he was sacked on consecutive plays and couldn’t convert a third-and-34 and the Spartans were forced to punt.
“You can’t take sacks in that situation,” Lewerke said.
With 4:50 left to go, Arizona State put together its only sustained drive of the night, a 13-play march that ended with the game-winning field goal at the buzzer. They converted two consecutive third-down opportunities — one on Michigan State pass interference penalty, then ran out the clock before the winning kick.
It’s tough to pin those last two drives on the defense, which looked worn out at the end of a game that started in 100-degree temperatures. But there’s plenty of blame to go around.
It’s easier to point fingers at the offense. Four red zone trips and only 13 points is a recipe for disaster. It certainly was Saturday night. They let Arizona State hang around, and then they let them win it at the end.
It just can’t happen. Especially in the red zone.
“We are definitely aware of it, we don’t like it,” Lewerke said of their scoring struggles. “It’s something we’ve got to get fixed. Whether that’s execution or whatever it is, we should be able to run any play that (co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner) tells us to run.”
It’s rare when 13 points is ever enough to win a game. It certainly wasn’t Saturday night. As Arizona State coach Herm Edwards has said in the past, “you play to win the games.”
“You’ve got to score touchdowns when you get down there,” Dantonio said. “It’s tough to win a game with 13 points,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s tough to win a game scoring 16 points.”