East Lansing — There was supposed to be a celebration at Spartan Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Instead, there was simply more frustration. More confusion. More head scratching.
More of the same.
A week after exploding for 51 points and appearing to finally figure some things out offensively, No. 18 Michigan State moved the ball but failed to come close to replicating last week’s performance, bungling the final minutes in a 10-7 loss to Arizona State in front of 73,531 at Spartan Stadium.
“Very disappointing,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “A lot of things going on, some things we can control, some things we can't control. But too many missed opportunities when you look at it. Just missed opportunities.”
A win would have made Dantonio the winningest coach in program history. Instead, he was left trying to explain away another mountain of penalties, some questionable play calling, debatable personnel moves and a mystifying final series.
The final offensive series for Michigan State will get most of the attention, and it had nearly everyone in the stadium – and on the sideline – unsure of what was happening.
Arizona State (3-0) had just taken a 10-7 lead with 50 seconds to play on Eno Benjamin’s 1-yard touchdown run. Michigan State started the ensuing drive at its 25 with no timeouts left, oddly burning two of them when Arizona State faced a fourth-and-13 on the winning drive.
An 11-yard pass to Darrell Stewart was followed by a pass interference call, and after Brian Lewerke hit Stewart for 25 yards to the ASU 24, the Spartans spiked the ball with 11 seconds to play.
That’s when things got crazy.
The first plan was to run a play to the end zone, but Dantonio quickly changed his mind and opted for the field goal. The field goal unit started to come on the field, came off, then came back on. Somehow, Matt Coghlin was able to nail a 42-yard field goal, presumably sending the game to overtime. But a review showed Michigan State had 12 players on the field.
“Time was running down and everybody was panicking,” said defensive tackle Raequan Williams, who is on the field goal unit. “We’ve got to get better at that. We go over that at the end of every week. We do something like that and make everybody scramble, run on and kick a field goal. That time we didn’t execute.”
Of course, when Coghlin tried from 47 yards he missed badly to the left and Arizona State beat Michigan State for the second straight season.
“Our kids did a great job of coming on the road and playing a really, really good football team,” Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said. “Coach (Dantonio) has built a heck of a program here and I can't say enough about him and his football team. They're tough and physical. We were going to have to play that way if we were going to have a chance to beat them.”
Michigan State (2-1) controlled much of the game, and the statistics don’t point toward a three-point loss. The Spartans outgained the Sun Devils 404-216, moved into Arizona State territory on 6 of 10 possessions and converted on more than half of their third downs.
But three missed field goals from Coghlin — he was wide right from 47 and 31 yards in the first half — as well as 10 penalties and a turnover helped stall the offense.
“We have just got to be able to finish drives,” said Lewerke, who was 24-for-38 for 291 yards. “I fumbled away one that probably would have been a touchdown. We get down there and get penalties and pushed back for third and longs which makes things difficult.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio recaps his team's 10-7 loss to Arizona State. The Detroit News
Stewart had another big game, catching nine passes for 121 yards while redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins gained 72 yards on 19 carries, adding a 9-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. But the running game was hit and miss as left tackle Kevin Jarvis left the game late in the first half with a leg injury.
The defense was able to keep the Spartans in the game until Arizona State’s final drive, which began at its 25 with 3:34 to play after Michigan State appeared to prolong a drive on a diving grab by Stewart but was overturned on replay.
A 40-yard pass from freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels to Brandon Aiyuk quickly got the Sun Devils to the MSU 25.
“They hit one big long one, and we got to play better on that one,” Dantonio said. “But the rest of it they sort of nickel and dimed it with him scrambling the football down to it.”
It was the scramble that finally got to the Spartans.
With Arizona State facing a fourth-and-13 from the MSU 28 and 1:23 to play, Michigan State twice called timeout. The extra planning mattered little as Daniels scrambled nearly untouched for 15 yards. Four plays later, Benjamin scored what proved to be the winner.
Michigan State's Joe Bachie, Brian Lewerke, Raequan Williams and David Dowell try and explain the loss to Arizona State. The Detroit News
“We dropped a spy, spy the quarterback so we'd be able to prevent something just like that,” Dantonio said. “He got out on the edge and he broke it.
“I don't care what defense you have, fourth-and-(13), you got to stop him.”
Michigan State didn’t, of course, and now it’s back to where it was most of last season and after one week this season — searching for answers.
The search rests mostly with the offense, but game management has crept into the equation now, as well, with the decision to take the two timeouts on defense and the confusion on the final play.
“It was somber in there,” Dantonio said of the postgame locker room. “Nobody likes to lose. Nobody wants to disappoint anybody. I thought the enthusiasm was very good on the sidelines, I thought we were playing hard.
“As far as the message to our football team, it's another life message. Man, you've got to get up and get off the ground. That's part of it. We've all had difficult days or things that didn't work out for us and the next thing you know you're sort of trying to climb out of a hole a little bit. That's the nature of life and that's what we do. That's coaching; that's teaching. That's football.”
And that’s reality for Michigan State.