Tempe, Ariz. — The Spartans admit it’s a problem, but pinpointing the reasons is something they’re still working on.
The problem, of course, is Michigan State’s inability to score touchdowns when it reaches the red zone. And on Saturday night against Arizona State, it was one of the primary reasons the Spartans headed home following a 16-13 loss as the Sun Devils kicked a winning field goal as time expired.
“We’re definitely aware of it,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “We don’t like it. It’s something we’ve got to get fixed. I don’t know if it’s execution or whatever it is, we should be able to run any play (offensive coordinator Dave) Warner tells us to run. So it’s just executing the play and not getting penalties.”
Four times Michigan State reached the red zone on Saturday and just once did it result in a touchdown, and that score came after a penalty pushed the Spartans back out of the red zone. It ended with Lewerke’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Cody White that gave Michigan State a 13-3 lead late in the third quarter.
The other trips didn’t go as well.
On Michigan State’s second drive of the game it got to the Arizona State 14 and were set to go for it on fourth-and-1 but a delay of game penalty forced a field goal. The next drive got to the Arizona State 6 before Lewerke overthrew tight end Matt Dotson in the end zone. The ball tipped off his hands and was intercepted.
On the opening drive of the second half, Michigan State had a third-and-2 from the Arizona State 7 but lost 3 yards on the next play, leading to Matt Coghlin’s second field goal.
“Obviously, I think the interception we had a guy open, a guy tipped it and made a play,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “Yeah they're concerning. They're always concerning and you want to score touchdowns no questions about that. For me to say what was the problem without watching the film I don't think would be appropriate really. You got to score touchdowns. Tough to win a game with 13 points, it’s tough to win a game with 16 points. You're always in the game, one play can flip the game. Last week it was different, we need to play better.”
It's a bit of a surprise for a team that returned 10 starters from last year’s offense.
“There’s a whole bunch of things going wrong,” White said. “That’s money time. We’ve got to turn it up at that time. At that point we’ve got to turn it up even more. It’s surprising, for sure, knowing we’ve got to finish teams off. We’ve got to keep pushing and we need to do a better job.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio talks about his team's loss to Arizona State following Saturday's game in Tempe, Ariz. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Next man up
Michigan State was short-handed coming into the game and lost three players by the time the game had ended as running back LJ Scott and punter Jake Hartbarger were injured.
Scott played the first play of the second half but spent the rest of the game on the sidelines. He was in uniform but didn’t have his helmet on. Hartbarger was hurt on a fourth-quarter punt when a defender rolled into his kicking leg.
“You’re’ always concerned when they go out but I think they’ll both be OK,” Dantonio said.
Left tackle Cole Chewins, who did not play last week, played the first play of the game but that was it.
“He just tweaked it,” Dantonio said of an injury he still hasn’t specifically addressed
Sophomore defensive end Jacub Panasiuk did not make the trip after suffering what appeared to be a shoulder injury last week. Also, linebacker Tyriq Thompson did not travel after starting next week.
Dantonio did not say why Thompson did not make the trip.
MSU's Brian Lewerke, Joe Bachie and Cody White talk about the Spartans' loss to Arizona State on Saturday night. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Feeling the heat
Dantonio insisted the weather, which was just over 100 degrees at kickoff, was not an issue. He said only one player had some cramping issues and that he returned to the game.
White agreed, adding that the time change also wasn’t a factor.
“We came ready to play,” White said. “Nothing affected us in that area. We just didn’t finish.”
That said, White said he’d never played in the heat the teams experienced on Saturday night.
“I have not,” he said. “This is my first time in Arizona. I’ve never seen cactus before.”
Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News talks about Michigan State's loss to Arizona State on Saturday night. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Home (not so) sweet home
It wasn’t the homecoming Lewerke was hoping for. The Phoenix native starred at Pinnacle High, and Saturday’s game was likely his only chance to play in his home state.
The junior quarterback finished 27-for-39 for 314 yards and one touchdown, but he also had one interception in the end zone.
“It was fun being home,” Lewerke said. “I met with my family and all that yesterday and saw them. It was a good experience in that sense, but didn’t get a win.”