East Lansing — Before the season, when Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio named Tyler O’Connor his starting quarterback, he asked the fifth-year senior if he would be able to handle all that came with the job.
Dealing with issues on the field was just part of it. As big a part of being a starting quarterback is how you respond when things aren’t going well.
That’s exactly where O’Connor and the Spartans are following their 30-6 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday in the Big Ten opener, one which included three interceptions thrown by O’Connor as the offense failed to score a touchdown in a Big Ten game for the first time since 2010.
“Football is a simple game in some respects but in other respects it becomes a complicated game and it’s all tied together much like any puzzle,” Dantonio said during his Sunday teleconference. “So the quarterback gets pressured, things start to happen in a negative way. Receivers are locked up, they can’t get off press coverage and there is nobody to throw to, then pressure starts to come even more because you can’t hold the ball forever back there. And there are also times you got to find the open guy.
“So it’s an accumulation of things and obviously we made some trips to the red zone and didn’t score points. Gotta score touchdowns to win football games. … But with all that being said the quarterback is gonna get more criticism and more praise probably than he deserves, on both ends of the stick. But that’s the nature of college football, and football in general, and you have to be able to accept that in a position of leadership, including the head coach.”
O’Connor was the first to take the blame, and to this point, there doesn’t appear to be any plans to make a change despite O’Connor’s five interceptions through three games.
Redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke played the final series Saturday and completed two of four passes for 26 yards. Junior Damion Terry did not play because of a minor injury, Dantonio said after the game.
While discussing Lewerke’s limited action, Dantonio did leave the door open for changes down the road.
“He needs to get better and he’ll have his opportunities as the season moves forward,” Dantonio said of Lewerke. “At this point in time there is no quarterback controversy. Now there may become one at some point. It’s about production.
“But there were a lot of things that entered into this one yesterday. You could probably take 15 snaps which were very, very good from our quarterback and then you could also take 15 that weren’t good. You’ve got to correct those.
“You can also take some ones that were completely somebody else’s issue. We just keep trying to work it.”
No. 17 Michigan State (2-1, 0-1 Big Ten) will get a chance to work through it when it travels to Indiana on Saturday for an 8 p.m. kickoff.
While quarterback play will continue to draw much of the attention, Dantonio seems just as concerned with the lack of pass rush through the first three games. Dantonio decided to take the redshirt off defensive ends Josh King and Auston Robertson late in the game against the Badgers and they should see more playing time moving forward.
But the lack of a pass rush helped Wisconsin be so effective on third down, Dantonio believes. The Badgers were 5-for-8 on third down in the first half, often converting long-yardage situations.
“We couldn’t get off of third down and (Wisconsin QB Alex) Hornibrook was right on the money, and we’ve got to pressure the quarterback and do the things that we have to do,” Dantonio said. “As I said yesterday, the game is won up front, and if you look at our quarterback’s performance and theirs, I think there is a difference, and that difference in some parts is related to pressure on the quarterback.”
Michigan State did record two sacks against the Badgers, but Hornibrook was too comfortable in the pocket, something that must change if the Spartans will be able to consistently force teams to punt the ball away.
That will be especially critical against an Indiana team that goes up-tempo on offense and has had its share of success against the Spartans.
“I think that you can learn something in every respect, from a win or a loss,” he said. “I think sometimes it brings you a little bit closer. It defines who your leaders are, things of that nature, and I think that’s what we’ll look for. We’ll look to see how we respond. We go to Indiana this weekend for a night game. Playing Indiana is always very competitive so we’ll have our work cut out for us.”