East Lansing — Michigan State had an extra week to prepare for Saturday’s matchup with Notre Dame, and while the numbers on the stat sheet weren’t bad, the Spartans failed to build any momentum headed into Big Ten play next week.
There were some good things from plenty of young players, but the reality of life with young players was also one of the big issues as three turnovers were turned into 21 points by Notre Dame and nine penalties for 97 yards helped seal Michigan State’s fate.
With conference play kicking off next week with a visit from Iowa, Michigan State has plenty to work on and will do so with these key takeaways from its loss to Notre Dame in mind.
■ Giving it up: There’s no way around it, Michigan State is having trouble hanging on to the ball. It entered the Notre Dame game having turned the ball over four times and added three more on Saturday. What’s worse is the fact the Fighting Irish turned all three into touchdowns and one, a fumble by LJ Scott at the goal line, was even worse considering it negated what should have been an MSU touchdown.
Fixing the turnover issue is critical moving forward, but there’s no easy fix. Michigan State always has done a good job valuing the ball, leading the Big Ten in turnover margin in 2013 and ’14 while finishing second in 2015. They spend plenty of time on it in practice, and coach Mark Dantonio said he’s not going to get on a guy who’s trying to make a play, but the fact remains, if the Spartans can’t start protecting the ball there will be plenty more days like the one they had against the Irish.
■ LJ’s woes: It’s not all on the younger players. The most obvious example of that is the fact junior running back LJ Scott now has three lost fumbles on the season, and while he was able to get away with two against Bowling Green, his fumble against Notre Dame was a killer. It looked like Scott was about to burst into the end zone with an impressive 15-yard touchdown run in the second quarter that would have brought MSU within seven points of Notre Dame. Instead, defensive back Shaun Crawford knocked the ball loose at the goal line and recovered in the end zone.
Notre Dame responded by marching down the field and taking a 28-7 lead into halftime, a lead Michigan State could not overcome. Dantonio didn’t sound like he was planning to cut Scott’s work in the running game, but continued issues holding on to the ball might force his hand.
■ Growing pains: As good as sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke has been at times through the first three games, he’s still offering regular reminders that he has only started five games in his career. His first-quarter interception that was returned 59 yards for a touchdown was a prime example as he locked into a receiver and threw a poor ball. He’s also been plagued by fumbles and coughed the ball up deep in the MSU end on Saturday, giving Notre Dame the ball inside the MSU 25.
He was trying to make a play, but Lewerke is still learning that sometimes the best move is to take the sack, punt the ball and live for another series. He’ll get it figured out — that seems likely ——but for now he’s not doing himself any favors. He made some good throws Saturday and ran the ball well again, but now he needs to start making better decisions with the ball.
■ Getting defensive: The defensive numbers looked really good for Michigan State through the first two games, and it’s not like the Spartans got rolled over by the Irish on Saturday. However, the defense didn’t do a great job against the run — it gave up 182 yards on 40 carries — and didn’t do a good job getting off the field on third downs as Notre Dame converted 8 of 14.
Those two stats, in particular, frustrated Dantonio the most, and proved some of the early success might have had more to do with lesser opponents than it did the Spartans. Again, there is still plenty of youth on the defensive side of the ball and there will be growing pains, but those excuses won’t last long, especially with conference play up next.
■ Youth movement: As frustrating as some of what happened on Saturday was for the Spartans, there are still plenty of signs the young talent is making progress. Lewerke finished with more than 300 yards passing and freshman receivers Hunter Rison and Cody White had a handful of catches combined while sophomores Trishton Jackson and Darrell Stewart had 11 catches total. The young offensive line was also solid with freshmen Kevin Jarvis and Jordan Reid seeing significant time.
On the other side of the ball, sophomore defensive end Kenny Willekes had 10 tackles while freshman linebacker Antjuan Simmons collected five stops for a Michigan State defense that had seven tackles for loss. The future is now for Michigan State, and that will include plenty of growing pains. But the talent is there, too. It’s just a matter of how long it takes to come out.