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Michigan State takeaways: Defense shows plenty of flaws in Spartans' slide

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Five takeaways from The Detroit News' Matt Charboneau after Michigan State's 37-34 loss to Illinois on Saturday.

Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters is sacked by Michigan State linebacker Noah Harvey in the second quarter Saturday in East Lansing.

Demise of defense

The once-vaunted Michigan State defense has become nothing but an ordinary group that too often finds itself giving up big plays and watching as the other team makes the plays necessary to win games. The latest example was Saturday’s loss to Illinois, one in which the Spartans allowed 27 fourth-quarter points as a 31-10 lead vanished. Sure, one of the touchdowns came from Illinois’ defense, but it was the Spartans defense that was on its heels going all the way back to the end of the first half. The collapse began then when with nine seconds to play, Illinois receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe somehow got behind the secondary for a 46-yard touchdown catch. It was Imatorbhebhe again on the first play from scrimmage of the fourth quarter as he hauled in an 83-yard pass from quarterback Brandon Peters for the score.

The final drive featured more breakdowns as Michigan State allowed Illinois to convert on fourth-and-17 when a stop would have ended the game, then appeared to put it away with a fourth-down stop inside the 5-yard line. But a pass interference call gave Illinois new life and the Illini cashed in with the winning score with five seconds left. The loss of linebacker Joe Bachie to suspension hurts, and cornerback Josiah Scott went out in the third quarter, but the MSU defense has taken a huge step backward this season.

Give it away

Teams don’t often turn the ball over four times and win a game, and Michigan State is the latest team to prove that theory. Illinois entered the game as one of the best teams in the country and forcing turnovers and the Spartans obliged with three interceptions and a lost fumble. All of them were critical. The first two interceptions came in the second quarter with Michigan State looking to add to a 28-3 lead. Quarterback Brian Lewerke hit freshman receiver Tre Mosley in the end zone but Mosley was hit and couldn’t hang onto the ball as it deflected into the arms of an Illinois defender. Later in the quarter, another tipped ball was intercepted after MSU had reached Illinois territory.

Things got worse late in the game as Lewerke had an interception returned 76 yards for a touchdown then fumble inside the MSU 10 on the next offensive play. The Michigan State defense answered with a turnover of its own, but the damage had been done for a team that has little margin for error, even in a game it led by 25 points late in the first half.

On the run

There were some bright spots for Michigan State, namely in the running game. The Spartans gained 275 yards on the ground, the most they have run for this season. Redshirt freshman running back Elijah Collins gained 170 yards on 28 carries for an average of 6.1 yards per attempt while quarterback Lewerke ran 11 times for a career-high 96 yards. Collins scored on runs of 1 and 6 yards while Lewerke scored on a 42-yard run. The running attack helped the Spartans pile up 526 yards, the second-most this season.

The fact it did so behind a fairly inexperienced offensive line was even more impressive. The injuries have been plenty all season, but the Spartans were without center Matt Allen, who was injured two weeks ago against Penn State, and guard Luke Campbell, who was sick most of the week. That led to the first career start for freshmen Nick Samac and J.D. Duplain. Samac started at center while Duplain was at left guard. Right tackle Jordan Reid remains the one constant as Matt Carrick was at right guard and AJ Arcuri at left tackle.

Youth movement

The injuries are playing a role, but Michigan State is starting to turn to some of its youngest players, especially on the offensive side of the ball as four true freshmen all earned their first starts Saturday. Samac and Duplain got the call on the offensive line, while receivers Julian Barnett and Mosley were also in the starting lineup. Barnett was in because C.J. Hayes missed his second straight game, and Mosley got the call in place of Darrell Stewart, who injured his foot against Penn State.

Add in the continued progress of Collins, a redshirt freshman who is backed up by freshmen Anthony Williams and Brandon Wright, and a big part of Michigan State’s offensive future is on display as the Spartans scratch to find two more wins in the final three games to become bowl eligible.

Crunched in crunch time

With the core of Michigan State’s defense being comprised of juniors and seniors with a fifth-year senior starter at quarterback, it’s surprising to still see the Spartans having trouble figuring out how to win games, especially those when they are ahead. This team is still made up of a lot of the same players that won 10 games two seasons ago, but after a 7-6 mark last season and a four-game slide this season, it’s clear Michigan State doesn’t know how to put teams away.

They didn’t have the chance in the previous three games, but this goes back to the Indiana game at the end of September when the Hoosiers nearly rallied to win and might have if not for a questionable penalty call on Indiana. The loss on Saturday to Illinois was the epitome of a team that doesn’t know how to win. Michigan State was up 28-3 late in the second quarter and 31-10 to open the fourth quarter yet still found a way to lose. From missed opportunities to add points on offense to giving up inexplicable big plays on defense, the Spartans simply don’t make winning plays, an alarming trait that shows no signs of changing.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau