Michigan State: Five things we learned vs. Nebraska

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Five takeaways from Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News following Michigan State's 9-6 loss to Nebraska on Saturday.

Flag football

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi had an uneven performance Saturday against Nebraska.

Entering Saturday’s game at Nebraska, Michigan State was in the top half of the Big Ten in penalties. It was clear, that even with the frustrations of the current season, the Spartans had remained disciplined and focused. That all went out the window against the Cornhuskers, as Michigan State committed seven penalties, including four personal foul calls and another 15-yarder on kick catcher interference. What made it worse was at least three of the personal fouls proved to be critical.

The first on Naquan Jones came after MSU had recovered a fumble at its 47. It moved the ball back to the Spartans’ 32 and the following drive only got back to near midfield, forcing a punt. In the second quarter, tight end Matt Dotson was flagged after failing to haul in a pass in the end zone, forcing Matt Coghlin to attempt a 41-yard field goal instead of a 26-yarder. The kick hit the left upright. Michigan State got itself out of a jam after Kenny Willekes was called for roughing the passer on the next drive, but in the fourth quarter, an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Skakur Brown on a kickoff moved Nebraska to its 45. Four plays later, the Huskers kicked their first field goal and the rally was on.

Opportunities dropped

If you only listened to quarterback Rocky Lombardi after the game, you’d think the Spartans didn’t have any trouble hanging on to the ball against the Cornhuskers. “I didn’t see any drops,” the redshirt freshman said. While Lombardi was clearly trying to avoid putting the blame of the poor offensive output on his teammates, the fact is the Spartans had several critical drops, including on the final drive when Cody White, Laress Nelson and Matt Sokol couldn’t hang on to the ball. Coach Mark Dantonio certainly noticed and noted the fact the drops were a critical turning point in the game. The conditions were not ideal, as the wind was whipping the entire game and the snow was falling in the fourth quarter, but with an offense that is having trouble finding any rhythm, not making plays that are there to be made only compounds the frustration.

Rocky outing for Lombardi

Lombardi wasn’t pointing fingers at the receivers, and that’s probably not the worst approach for a quarterback. It was a tough spot for Lombardi, too, who got his second start as Michigan State finally decided Lombardi might be a better option over an injured Brian Lewerke. Unfortunately for the Spartans, Lombardi didn’t provide the spark he did when he started earlier this season against Purdue and led Michigan State to the victory.

Lombardi was just 4-for-17 passing in the first half and finished 15-for-41 or 146 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass but could have had at least three. He overshot Dotson on the opening drive of the game and later threw a bit high to Dotson just before the tight end picked up his critical personal foul. In the fourth quarter, Lombardi hit Dotson in the end zone, but the tight end dropped the ball.

So, it was a bit of a mixed bag for Lombardi as he missed some open guys in tough conditions, but certainly didn’t get a lot of help from his receivers. He did run for 53 yards and had several key first-down pickups running the draw. He’ll likely get another shot to start next week against Rutgers, which should provide a chance to regain the touch he had against Purdue.

Failing to strike a balance

Play-calling has become the buzzword around the Michigan State offense with co-coordinator Dave Warner drawing much of the heat for implementing a game plan the head coach wants. It’s never been a big surprise that the Spartans want to run the ball first in an effort to find offensive balance. For most of the season, that hasn’t worked. For several reasons, Michigan State has simply not been able to run the ball. On Saturday, however, there were creases and entering the fourth quarter the Spartans had run for 141 yards. By the end of the game, though, MSU had gained just 2 more yards on six carries, instead throwing the ball 17 times, completing it just six times. It was a significant shift for a team that had finally found some success on the ground and came as the snow was falling and making the field slick.

While many have been hollering for Michigan State to throw the ball more, the conditions and the success on the ground seemed to point toward at least attempting to run the ball late in the game. Michigan State ran 13 plays on its final two drives. One was a punt, one was a run. The Spartans threw nine incomplete passes. That was far from offensive balance and just added fuel to the simmering fire around the offensive play-calling.

More: Spartans stout defense declines to cast wary eye at anemic offense

Dominant defense is wasted

What might be the most frustrating thing for not only Spartan fans but the team itself, is the fact Michigan State is one more loss from a .500 season while possessing one of the best defenses in the nation. That unit was at its best again on Saturday, giving up just nine points and 248 total yards. Both numbers were well off Nebraska’s season average and the defense added in a couple of turnovers for good measure. The offense, though, failed to turn either of those turnovers into points.

Credit the players on defense. They were busy after the game talking about the plays they could have made, not the ones their teammates on offense did not. It speaks to the chemistry of the team, but the reality is the Spartans are failing to take advantage of having one of the most dominant defense is Dantonio’s tenure.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau