MSU not worried about lack of fourth-quarter scoring

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The Spartans know all about it, and quite frankly, they don't necessarily want to keep hearing about it.

But it's hard to ignore the fact that Michigan State, as prolific as it has been offensively this season, has had all sorts of trouble putting points on the scoreboard in the fourth quarter. And in the last two weeks, it's become even more of an issue as two straight victories became a lot closer than they ever should have.

Against Nebraska, a 27-3 lead was whittled down to 27-22 before Trae Waynes ended the game with an interception in the final minute. Last week against Purdue, 21-point lead was quickly cut to one touchdown before Darien Harris intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown.

Overall, No. 8 Michigan State has been outstanding on offense this season. It has scored 273 points through six games, the most in school history. But the offense has also scored only 21 points total in the fourth quarter — 14 against Eastern Michigan and seven against Wyoming.

The defense chipped in seven last week, but again, the Spartans, while acknowledge it's an issue, aren't exactly dwelling on it.

"What about the first two (quarters)?" offensive line coach Mark Staten said. "Let's talk about that. Let's talk about the first two, let's talk about us outscoring teams, 4-1. I don't want to talk about the fourth quarter. Neither should you guys."

But that would be a bit naive and Staten realizes that, as well, conceding the fourth-quarter issues have been discussed in meetings. He also believes, as coach Mark Dantonio stated earlier this week, that opponents are approaching games against Michigan State differently.

"We're winning games and putting up big numbers," Staten said. "We're protecting Connor (Cook, quarterback) and opening up holes for the backs. But teams will play longer. Guys play at a different level and it's different when there is a target on your back. … We've got to come with it for all four quarters."

The Spartans have certainly had their chances. They were in Oregon territory in the fourth quarter and trailing by 12 when Jeremy Langford was stopped on fourth-and-2.

And last week at Purdue, holding a 38-17 lead, Cook threw an interception with the Spartans already in field goal range.

"I guess it's a little like playing golf, but I guess if you're 100 yards out, it's never the same shot," Dantonio said. "So it's probably very much the same. It's a different team, different situation. But the end results are that you want to put the Purdue game away. We're on the 20, we're going in, up by 21, things changed.

"Same thing could be said for the Nebraska game. Ball goes through one of our defensive back's hands (Kurtis Drummond), should be a pick-six, should be 34-9. But it's not."

None of that answers the question why the Spartans are struggling. It simply illustrates that it hasn't followed the same pattern each week.

And for Cook, who admitted he doesn't have the answers but believes all of the mistakes are correctable, the issue won't go away until Michigan State plays a full four quarters.

"In meetings, you can't ignore the elephant in the room," Cook said. "But like I said, it's all correctable. We scored in the fourth quarter last year and finished games last year

"I don't think it's a focus issue. I think if it was a lack of focus, you would see inconsistencies throughout the entire game. Sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way in the fourth quarter. I face adversity and there is no perfect game. There will be ups and downs, there will be momentum swings, but you see it all on film and can correct it."

Cook pointed specifically to a play against Purdue where he forced a deep ball to tight end Josiah Price when he said the film revealed Aaron Burbridge was open.

"It was completely my fault," Cook said. I have never made that read and throw in practice. Completely uncharacteristic of me."

Heading into Saturday's game at Indiana, the goal now for Michigan State is to quiet the critics by finishing strong.

"Certainly we've got to always address our areas of our weaknesses, our areas where we're falling short," Dantonio said. "And so every week we're going to address those things; I don't care whether it's a specific play, coverage, whatever it is. You want to address your weaknesses or your areas where you need to perform better.

"Everything that you go through, the adversity that you go through, the anxiety that you have, will inevitably strengthen you if you look for it to strengthen you. If it allows you to crush your spirit, then you've got problems. But I don't think that's where we're at."