'It's how you finish': Spartans defense embarrassed by fourth-quarter meltdown

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — When this season began, Michigan State was expected to have one of the best defenses in the nation.

It was hardly a stretch considering the Spartans had been among the top units the previous two seasons and returned the core of the defense that was No. 1 in the country in 2018 in rushing yards allowed.

Illinois wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe makes a reception while under coverage from Michigan State safety Xavier Henderson, left, and cornerback Shakur Brown in the fourth quarter.

However, for the better part of the last two months, the idea of the Spartans being a dominant defense has been nothing short of preposterous. Entering Saturday’s game against Illinois, the Spartans had allowed 100 points over the previous three games.

But the way the defense crumbled in the fourth quarter in a 37-34 loss to the Fighting Illini was still hard to fathom and even tougher to predict.

Michigan State entered the fourth quarter with a 31-10 lead before giving up a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in the fourth quarter and the last play from scrimmage. The last one came with five seconds to play and proved to be the winner while in between was a mess of missed opportunities and mistakes that led to one of the most stunning losses in Mark Dantonio’s tenure.

When it was all said and done, Illinois had scored 27 points — one touchdown was a defensive score — and piled up 210 yards before carrying coach Lovie Smith off the field as it became bowl eligible for the first time since 2014.

“It’s the deep ball,” Michigan State linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “Go back and watch what's going on. We stopped them and we got sack after sack. We backed them up and I mean, you can't do anything about that. A quarterback just throws the ball 50 yards in the air and just hopes somebody catches it. Sometimes we won't get those, so we just gotta keep our heads up and keep fighting.”

The fight might return, but it wasn’t there for much of the fourth quarter.

The first deep ball Simmons referred to came on the first play of the quarter when Brandon Peters hit Josh Imatorbhebhe for an 83-yard touchdown. The Illini later added a 6-yard run from Reggie Corbin and then got the pick-6 from Sydney Brown.

The final drive, though, was when things really entered hard to believe category.

After Illinois reached the MSU 49, Peters threw an incomplete pass, then got sacked for a 7-yard loss. After another incompletion it was fourth-and-17 from the Illinois 44. Peters then threw the ball up to Imatorbhebhe, who hauled it in for a 37-yard gain.

Dantonio called it a “backbreaker.”

For the defensive line, it stung.

“Game of inches,” defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “You think in that situation it’s no way. But, they made a play, they outexecuted us again.”

Illinois eventually got to the Michigan State 1 and had a first-and-goal. On the first down, Peters stumbled and lost 3 yards. After no gain on second down Peters threw an incomplete pass on third down. On fourth down, it appeared Michigan State got the winning stop, but cornerback Josh Butler was called for pass interference.

Two plays later, Peters hit Daniel Barker with the winning touchdown pass.

“It's how you finish,” Smith said. “You gotta keep fighting. It's always about the next play, there were a lot of disappointing moments in that game, but you don't have time to harp on it, you have to move on to the next play as it turns out we didn't give him an opportunity to get the ball back. So it all worked out the way we needed it to.”

It worked out for Illinois and Michigan State was left trying to find answers. Dantonio didn’t think it was pass interference, but the Spartans had their chances to win before that play.

“A lot of guys are in there feeling pretty hurt by this one because we had this one and we let them take it from us,” Williams said. “Teams can’t outexecute us and that's what they did.”

They outexecuted a defense that was once dominant. Those days, though, seem like a long time ago.

“You can't just fold,” safety David Dowell said. “You've got to keep doing things right and then hopefully it'll eventually start translating into the game because we haven't been doing a good job of that as a whole team, as a defensive back field and as a defense.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau