What's wrong with Michigan State?
When Griffin Oakes’ low, line-drive kick sailed through the Memorial Stadium uprights, Michigan State kissed the B1G East, the B1G Championship and the College Football Playoff goodbye.
That much was obvious. It’s no longer 2015, when all of those goals were reached. This is new territory. For the first time since 2012, the Spartans have to figure out how to respond to a regular-season losing streak.
MSU’s new goal is just trying to figure out what in the world is going on.
Many want to blame Tyler O’Connor. The quarterback is a natural target for MSU fans who have been spoiled with next-level quarterback play. Without a doubt, he made some costly mistakes in the Spartans’ two-week debacle, but there are greater problems beyond the quarterback position.
Mark Dantonio addressed that. And as he said, there are a myriad of little things that added up in back-to-back humbling losses. There isn’t one big thing MSU can correct and all of the sudden become a top-10 team again.
Losing the turnover battle, committing costly penalties, not getting quality offensive line play and being inconsistent in the kicking game have all hurt. And yes, there’s also a little luck involved. That hasn’t gone well, either. When you look at the numbers, it isn’t pretty.
Maybe the biggest thing Dantonio stressed during his weekly press conference was MSU’s struggles with the turnover battle. That might surprise some after a 1-1 split in Bloomington. On the season, MSU is only -1 in that department. That’s not great, but that’s also not cause for major panic.
It’s been the type of turnovers that have plagued the Spartans. Last year, MSU allowed just 20 points off turnovers in 14 games. Through four games this year, that number is already at 16.
Part of that obviously comes back to O’Connor. He’s on pace to throw 15 interceptions in a 12-game regular season. That was three times as many as the Spartans threw during the 2015 regular season.
But part of that is on the MSU offensive line. The numbers aren’t much different from last year — 2.9 QB hurries per game allowed in 2015 compared to 3.25 in 2016 — but it’s been the result of those plays that have proven costly.
Take this play. All Wisconsin does is a simple overload blitz. O’Connor recognizes that he needs to get rid of the ball quickly because two MSU linemen are blocking one player while a linebacker comes through untouched on the opposite side.
The result is a pick:
O’Connor made some poor, poor decisions. The T.J. Edwards interception was as bad as it gets. But this doesn’t all fall on O’Connor. Collectively, MSU can’t make mistakes like that, especially late in games.
The Spartans are averaging 1.25 turnovers per second half and while forcing just 0.5. That won’t cut it.
Everybody knows that the penalties have been killer for Michigan State. For a Mark Dantonio-coached team, that’s atypical, to say the least. Last year’s group averaged 42.9 penalty yards per game. This year’s group is averaging 74.5 per game, which is 110th of 128 FBS teams.
Yikes. Those are drive killers. Or for the MSU defense, they’ve been be drive revivers.
And just like the turnovers, the timeliness of them has been brutal. Drake Martinez’s leaping penalty in against Indiana was the worst of them all, but there have too many others late in games.
In the two losses, MSU racked up 58 penalty yards in the fourth quarter/overtime periods. Average that out, and it’s 29 penalty yards per fourth quarter at a pace of 116 penalty yards per game. Marshall ranks dead last in FBS with 103 penalty yards per game.
So yes, that’s a major issue.
No team can afford to shoot itself in the foot like that down the stretch. And while the Malik McDowell targeting call was rough, there are plenty of other teams that have been the victims of odd ejections like that. MSU can’t rank second-to-last in the B1G in penalty yards and still expect to compete in the toughest division in college football.
It’s never good for a fourth-year starter to convert 40 percent of his kicks. It doesn’t take a football guy to tell you that. Those issues came to the forefront when Michael Geiger missed two kicks in a game that was ultimately decided by a field goal.
Again, it comes back to the timeliness. Geiger’s two made kicks happened in the Wisconsin game. In other words, his only two made field goals came in a game that the Spartans lost by 24 points. In other words, they were irrelevant.
Geiger’s issues this year surfaced early in games. Against Furman, he missed a kick in the first quarter and didn’t attempt another one until three weeks later against Wisconsin.
Against Indiana, he had a kick blocked at the end of MSU’s 14-play opening drive. After the Spartans were an offensive mess against Wisconsin, they needed to get something out of that opening drive. They failed to do that.
When the Spartans were on the Indiana 32-yard line in the fourth quarter with a 7-point lead, what did they do? They didn’t call Geiger’s number to make it a two-possession game. They went for it. Then they got a holding penalty and were forced to point. Eight plays later, Indiana marched down the field and tied up the game.
Things have spiraled quickly for MSU. You’ll forgive a kid for missing a 49-yard kick, but it’s the ripple effect that those other misses have. Did Geiger allow the IU offense to pick apart the MSU secondary? No, but it’s all tied together. One bad thing leads to another for MSU.
Every team needs a little bit of luck. Maybe not Tennessee luck, but a little bit of luck never hurt anybody.
The luckiest bounce the Spartans got all year was the fact that Griffin Oakes missed three kicks. He then wound up making the game-winner in overtime.
Even when MSU got lucky, it didn’t work out. Ed Davis was granted the sixth year of eligibility he sought after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament before the 2015 season. But his health prevented him from being inserted into the lineup as the All-B1G linebacker he is.
Speaking of linebackers, MSU could use Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke. Badly. The Spartans’ two veterans have both been sidelined for most of the first part of the season. Bullough is expected to return sooner than Reschke, but there’s no exact timetable for either of their returns. Without them, MSU is ranked 110th in FBS in tackles for loss.
MSU also lost McDowell, its best player, on a 50-50 targeting call. On a play that could’ve went either way, the Spartans were on the short end of the stick. Now he’ll be out for the first half against BYU.
What about that crazy fumble on Devine Redding’s 44-yard run? Montae Nicholson somehow tipped the ball back in bounds and Chris Frey nearly recovered it. If he holds on to that, MSU is still up a touchdown with the ball in the middle of the fourth quarter. Instead, IU retained possession and scored the game’s tying touchdown.
Even the game-winning field goal against Indiana didn’t bounce MSU’s way. Tyson Smith had Oakes’ kick go right through his hands. Kevin Wilson actually said that Smith got a piece of it. Watch the replay closer and you’ll wonder how he didn’t wind up with a block:
Should MSU have been that close to Indiana in the first place? No, which is obviously the bigger issue.
There are many things wrong with this once-steady program right now. Getting outscored 35-14 in the fourth quarter and posting a 37.5 percent third-down conversion rate haven’t helped, either.
This is unchartered territory for this entire roster — outside of Davis — which has only played on 11-plus win teams. Unless the Spartans win out and win a bowl game, that isn’t happening this year.
Even though the B1G Championship is likely out of reach, MSU still has two-thirds of a season to go. Dantonio said he isn’t going to start preparing for next year when there are things left to accomplish. MSU still can hand Michigan yet another loss. The Spartans can still stun Ohio State again. And more importantly, this program can show that it didn’t take a major step back when it lost Dantonio’s best senior class.
How will this group respond? Only time will tell.
This would be a good time for that chip to come back.