Michigan State coach talks about the loss to Penn State, the third in a row for the Spartans. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — The week off was a chance to reset, the Spartans said.
After getting blown out by top-10 opponents in back-to-back weeks, Michigan State was confident its first bye week would help create the feeling of a fresh start. With another top-10 team coming to Spartan Stadium on Saturday — No. 6 Penn State — the Spartans believed they were ready to turn the season around.
However, with the rain falling steadily all day, Michigan State simply provided more of the same — an offense with no rhythm and a defense with no answers — as Penn State rolled to a 28-7 victory, handing the Spartans their third straight loss.
And now, they’re in a familiar position, trying to explain how to keep their season from spiraling out of control heading into another week off before a surging Illinois team comes to town on Nov. 9.
“The same things we said before the last bye week,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said when asked what the message was this time. “We’ve actually got to apply it this time. We’ve still got a month left of football, a lot of games to win, hopefully. So we’ve got to keep going.”
Lewerke was right about one thing — it was the same mantra two weeks ago after Michigan State got blown out by Wisconsin and faced a week off.
It was about recollecting and refocusing. And by Saturday evening, the same lines were coming from the handful of Michigan State players available and coach Mark Dantonio.
“We're 4-4 and as tough as it is to say that, I know everybody wants us to be 8-0 right now, but we’re 4-4 and we’ve played four very good football teams,” Dantonio said. “I think we should be a very good football team again too, but right now we’re not playing well enough to be that very good football team.
“Have to recollect and get ready for Illinois.”
It was clear early on Saturday that Penn State (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) had no plans of allowing Michigan State to turn its season around, at least not this week. The Spartans entered the game having won two in a row in the series and five of the last six.
But quarterback Sean Clifford threw four touchdown passes, including three to tight end Pat Freiermuth, adding a 27-yarder to KJ Hamler as he finished 17-for-28 for 189 yards. It allowed the Nittany Lions to take a 21-0 lead at halftime and push that advantage to 28-0 before simply running out the clock on a miserable day.
“You can never get too high, you can never get too low on anything really,” Clifford said. “It's kind of in our motto, I know we preach 1-0 and I know people probably think it's cliché but that's what we talk about in our locker room. So honestly, that's just the truth. I'm just glad that we got this win today, learn from it, get this bye week to recover and everything.”
While Penn State was going about its business, so was Michigan State (4-4, 2-3), which was busy following a similar formula, one that had seen it lose its last two games to Ohio State and Wisconsin by a combined score of 72-10. By the time Michigan State came out of the locker room for the second half, it still hadn’t scored a point since the second quarter against the Buckeyes.
Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke and RB Elijah Collins talk about the offense's struggles in the loss to Penn State. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
That was eight quarters without a point, a drought that mercifully ended when freshman running back Anthony Williams scored on a 4-yard run in the third quarter. It was about all the Spartans could muster, though, as Lewerke struggled for much of the game, going 16-for-32 for 165 yards with an interception, and backups Rocky Lombardi and Theo Day fared no better.
“We’ll look at everything,” Dantonio said, pointing out the various problems with execution and seeming to give the game plan a pass. “On the flip side of things too, you have to understand we played three teams that are probably three of better teams defensively in the country. They’re tough to score on. They’ve got good players and they execute.”
That execution was superior from the get-go. Clifford connected twice with Freiermuth to give Penn State the early advantage. Their 16-yard connection opened the scoring with 6:54 to play in the first quarter as Freiermuth hauled in a pass lobbed over the Michigan State defenders to give the Nittany Lions a 7-0 lead.
Penn State’s next drive was aided by a third-down defensive holding on Michigan State and ended on the second play of the second quarter with Freiermuth catching a Clifford pass inside the 5-yard line and dragging tacklers into the end zone for a 13-0 lead after the extra point was missed.
Michigan State followed with its best drive of the half, but it stalled when Matt Coghlin’s 46-yard field goal was blocked by Penn State’s Shaka Toney. The Nittany Lions then marched 62 yards on eight plays to extend their lead on a 27-yard strike from Clifford to Hamler. Clifford then ran in the two-point conversion to give Penn State a 21-0 lead.
Penn State extended the lead to 28-0 with 10:10 left in the third quarter on Freiermuth’s third score, a 6-yard reception. It came after Michigan State’s Brandon Sowards fumbled a punt at the MSU 6.
MSU's Antjuan Simmons, David Dowell and Raequan Williams talk about the defense's performance in the loss to Penn State. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
“I mean they lobbed the ball in the corner and we've got to make a play on the ball that first touchdown,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “The second one we're right there. We've seen it thirty times on film. They run a simple inside zone, we know how to fit it up. Tyriq (Thompson) thought he had someone behind him that was going to help him. They scored one after the missed punt, but we just killed ourselves.”
Michigan State managed to get on the board later in the third quarter after a 49-yard pass from Lewerke to Cody White got the ball to the Penn State 4. Two plays later, Williams scored his first career touchdown.
Any chance at a comeback was dashed a pair of late turnovers and Michigan State now must wait two weeks before getting a chance to end its skid.
“We're definitely not where we need to be,” defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “You need to get out and out-execute and that usually tells you who wins and who loses, and we got out-executed today.”