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Turnovers torpedo 'inconsistent' Spartans in 24-0 blanking by No. 10 Hoosiers

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — For the past week, Mel Tucker has been preaching consistency.

Michigan State’s first-year coach had yet to see it from his team through the first three weeks and was desperately seeking some form of it on Saturday against No. 10 Indiana.

Well, the Spartans were consistent, all right, however, it was hardly the sort of consistency Tucker was looking for.

Indiana's Peyton Hendershot hurdles Michigan State's Shakur Brown for extra yardage in the second quarter.

Once again, Michigan State did its best to beat itself, turning the ball over three times in the first half and four times total as No. 10 Indiana took advantage, piling up 17 points off those turnovers and cruising to a 24-0 victory at Spartan Stadium. It was the first time Michigan State was shut out at home since Oct. 12, 1985, when Michigan beat the Spartans, 31-0.

“Obviously, again, turnovers and penalties in the first half, against any type of team you do not give yourself a chance,” Tucker said. “That was basically the story of this game.

“It’s just straight down the middle. You can see it. It’s obvious. You turn the ball over and you have critical penalties against a good football team, you're going to get beat. That's what happened and we need to figure out what we can do with the guys that we have.”

BOX SCORE: No. 10 Indiana 24, Michigan State 0

That might be the biggest question for Tucker and his staff now four games into their tenure leading the Spartans. Under Mark Dantonio, Michigan State became regular Big Ten championship contender. But over the last couple of years of Dantonio’s tenure, the recruiting had dropped off, leaving the Spartans with a roster that doesn’t quite measure up to what it once was.

Multiple times after the loss on Saturday, Tucker talked about figuring out who the Spartans (1-3) have and evaluating which players give them the best chance to win. However that all shakes out over the final four games remains to be seen, but by the time the Hoosiers were done taking care of the Spartans on Saturday, it had a familiar ring.

“Consistency and performance, again, is a killer for us because we're inconsistent,” Tucker said. “We have some efficient plays on offense, and then nothing. And you can't take the defense off the hook, as well. We had opportunities to get them stopped and didn't.”

Tucker was right, you can’t give the defense a free pass, but this one lies almost entirely on the offense.

On Michigan State’s second possession, quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw into tight coverage and was intercepted by Indiana’s Tiawan Mullen as the Hoosiers responded with their first touchdown. The next MSU possession ended when Anthony Williams fumbled at the MSU 16 and it was recovered by the Hoosiers. Two plays later, Indiana led by two touchdowns.

And Lombardi’s final throw came early in the second quarter when he threw into tight coverage once more and was intercepted by Mullen, again. Indiana turned that into a field goal and a 17-point lead, one that grew to 24-0 late in the second quarter. Lombardi was replaced by redshirt freshman Payton Thorne, who threw his own interception in the second half.

Lombardi was just 3-for-7 before he was pulled while Thorne went 10-for-20 for 110 yards.

“We were inconsistent with both guys in there,” Tucker said of his quarterbacks. “We have some efficient plays and then we weren’t inefficient. So, we'll know more when we look at the tape.”

Indiana (4-0), like Rutgers and Iowa before, was more than happy to feast off Michigan State’s miscues. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and wide receiver Ty Fryfogle benefitted the most as the Hoosiers’ average starting field position was their own 46 with four drives starting inside the Michigan State 30.

Time and again, turnovers from the offense put the defense in a bad spot, though the Spartans were hardly using that as an excuse.

“It can be hard, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to get out there and play ball,” linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. “If somebody turns the ball over, you go out there and you get a three-and-out, what is there to complain or be sad or feel down about?

"You stop them, you give the ball back to the offense and you give them a chance to drive back down the field and put up some points. That's just what it is. The game is going to have its ups and downs, the momentum is going to change and you just got to keep playing.”

Penix finished with 320 yards passing and two touchdowns while Fryfogle had 11 receptions for 200 yards, including both of the touchdown strikes from Penix. Stevie Scott III added a touchdown run and the Hoosiers, who outgained Michigan State, 433-191.

“I’m really proud of our guys,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said. “It’s been a tough place for us to win over the years and to get a shutout is really special. But I thought it was ugly. I thought it was sloppy and we didn’t execute well enough, especially on offense. We had special teams mistakes – missed a field goal for the first time. But the defense held them to under 200 yards and had four takeaways which continue to be game changers for us.”

Things started well enough for the Spartans as Shakur Brown intercepted Penix in the opening drive of the game. However, Michigan State quickly reverted to hurting itself as Lombardi’s handoff to Jordon Simmons was fumbled on third-and-2. Lombardi recovered it but Michigan State was forced to punt.

After the Spartans’ defense forced an Indiana punt, Lombardi threw his first interception to Mullen, setting up the Hoosiers’ first score, an 8-yard run by Stevie Scott III with 2:11 left in the first quarter. Michigan State gave it right back on the next series when Williams fumbled. Two plays later, Penix hit Fryfogle with a 16-yard scoring pass to push the lead to 14-0 with 1:14 left in the first quarter.

Brown’s second interception thwarted the next Indiana drive, but Lombardi was intercepted on the next play by Mullen again, leading to a 21-yard field goal from Charles Campbell and a 17-0 lead for Indiana with 9:22 to play in the second quarter. Michigan State was forced to punt on its next drive and the Hoosiers responded with a 65-yard connection from Penix to Fryfogle to push the lead to 24-0 with 4:56 left in the first half.

Neither team was able to score in the second half, though Michigan State never truly threatened, failing to convert on fourth down twice while the Hoosiers were on cruise control.

“Much of it is about execution because we're inconsistent,” Tucker said. “You see us able to make plays on both sides of the ball — in the run game, the passing game, and then at times, we're not able to. That's being inconsistent.”

And now Michigan State heads into an even more uncertain week with Maryland up next. The Terrapins had a COVID-19 outbreak this week and their game with Ohio State was canceled, leaving next week’s matchup in doubt.

If the Spartans ultimately make it to Maryland, Simmons insists there will be no letdown.

“Everybody in our locker room loves football,” Simmons said. “We want to play. … (guys) are fully invested in this program and they're going to do what they got to do to make sure we're moving forward. I don't see anybody in our locker room who is going to hang their heads or is going to not come in ready to work (Sunday) or Monday. That's not happening. I don't see it happening.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau