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Mistakes haunt Michigan State in 'game of inches'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Arizona State defensive back Dasmond Tautalatasi intercepts a pass intended for Michigan State tight end Matt Dotson during the first half on Saturday.

Tempe, Ariz. — Michigan State didn’t make it back to campus until sometime Sunday morning, and odds are, the Spartans were plenty weary.

That’s the downside of playing a night game three time zones away from home and doing it in sweltering heat. But the Spartans were especially knocked for a loop considering they allowed a 10-point lead to slip away in the fourth quarter and lost, 16-13, to Arizona State on a field goal as time expired.

“Well, what a difference a few inches could make,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “Difference between happiness and unhappiness I guess you could say, so you look at the football game, inability to score in the red zone creeps up on us again.”

That was one major factor, sure. But throw in the penalties, the inability to run the football, quarterback Brian Lewerke facing consistent pressure and the defense allowing another quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards — that’s two in two games — and you’ve got a host of reasons why the optimism of a season is in serious jeopardy just two weeks in.

It’s not the place Michigan State expected to be. Yes, the trip to Arizona was difficult. The game ended around 2 a.m. Eastern Time and it was around 100 degrees the entire game.

But this is the type of game you win if you expect to truly contend for any sort of championship. Michigan State is probably the better team with a more talented roster, overall. But it was Arizona State’s playmakers that got it done when the game was on the line. Quarterback Manny Wilkins stood out, throwing for 380 yards while wide receiver N’Keal Harry, kept in check most of the game, tied the game with a tough touchdown grab over cornerback Justin Layne.

It was the sort of play you expected Michigan State to make. Instead, the Spartans made mistakes. Whether it was one of the nine penalties — the biggest being a questionable pass interference call on Layne on Arizona State’s game-winning drive — the turnover in the end zone or the fact Michigan State couldn’t get yards on the ground when it needed to, the Spartans didn’t play winning football.

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“They just made some plays,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “Our cornerbacks played very good I think. They competed, they got players. Like you guys can see, they’re on scholarship too. We’ll watch the film. There are no pointing fingers on this team. It’s a team effort and we’ll get back to work on Monday.”

Michigan State certainly had its chances to make those big plays.

In the first half, the big miss was when Michigan State had a first-and-goal at the Arizona State 3, holding a 3-0 lead. On first down, LJ Scott was dropped for a 3-yard loss leading to a second-down play that defined the game. Under pressure, Lewerke backpedaled as he threw into the end zone for tight end Matt Dotson. The throw was a touch high, went off Dotson’s fingertips and was intercepted.

“There was a little pressure,” Lewerke said. “Probably could have stepped up instead of moving to my left. He was open, for sure, and I threw it a little high.”

In the third quarter with a 6-3 lead, the Spartans defense got after Wilkins, and on third-and-10 from the ASU 34, Wilkins lost the ball. It was bouncing in front of defensive tackle Raequan Williams, who tried to scoop it up and run. Instead, he didn’t come up with it and Arizona State was able to punt.

“It’s a game of inches if you look at Raequan trying to scoop up that fumble,” Dantonio said. “If he scores good things are happening.”

For what it’s worth, Dantonio said he was fine with Williams’ decision. He had open space around him, the ball just bounced away. And frankly, Williams was a force in the middle all night, so it’s hard to pin much on the junior tackle.

Still, heading into the early bye week, Michigan State is searching. Searching for a running game. Searching for pressure on the quarterback. Searching for points.

“One loss doesn’t mean the end of everything,” defensive end Kenny Willekes said. “It’s a non-conference loss, but it’s not supposed to feel good. I don’t think we’ll try to numb anything there. I think we just have to go out and do what we do. It’s going to start with this bye week we got coming up in preparation for Indiana. We have got to be better, a lot better as a team.”

It's probably good the Spartans are off this week. Dantonio agreed, noting the mounting injuries.

That list grew on Saturday to include Scott and punter Jake Hartbarger. Dantonio said he thought they’d be OK, but that’s not certain. Left tackle Cole Chewins made it for one play and defensive end Jacub Panasiuk was out after getting hurt in the opener.

They’re all key players for Michigan State, and they’ll need them all moving forward. But depth was supposed to be a thing for this team that returned 19 starters. Instead, the Spartans are looking for answers.

After a lackluster showing in the opener against Utah State, they all talked about making the biggest improvement in between the first and second games. If that’s the case, it could be a frustrating season in East Lansing.