Spartans vow to 'be better' after offense sputters against Hoosiers

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Bloomington, Ind. — For most of the season, Michigan State’s offense has been the star of the show.

Entering Saturday’s matchup with Indiana at Memorial Stadium, the Spartans were averaging 488 yards and nearly 37 points a game while featuring a Heisman Trophy hopeful at running back, a pair of receivers as good as any in the Big Ten, and a quarterback orchestrating it all while rarely making a mistake.

Thanks to a resilient defense, however, and a few timely plays in the second half to get the offense moving, No. 10 Michigan State pulled out a 20-15 victory to remain unbeaten heading into a bye week before Michigan comes to Spartan Stadium on Oct. 30.

By then, the Spartans (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) expect to have the offense back on track.

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne, left, is tackled by Indiana's Devon Matthews during the second half.

“We have to move the ball no matter what's happening,” quarterback Payton Thorne said. “It doesn't really matter who’s feeling it, who's not, what we're doing. That's a collective effort and we have to be better. I don't know exactly what the issues were yet. You have a certain thing in mind but until you go back and really watch the film to watch all of what was happening, you're not gonna know for sure.

“But I think there was some stuff that was there in the first half, and for whatever reason it wasn’t happening. So we have to get better, we have to address it and get moving forward.”

Michigan State was limited to 241 yards, its lowest output of the season. The Spartans also managed just 100 rushing yards as Kenneth Walker III, the leading rusher in the nation, was limited to 84 yards on 23 carries, getting plenty of “hard yards,” as coach Mel Tucker described them, in the second half.

Thorne struggled, going 14-for-26 passing for 126 yard with one touchdown and two interceptions, while Jalen Nailor had four catches for 22 yards and Jayden Reed had four receptions for 70 yards, though Reed dropped a pass in the first half that likely would have gone for a long touchdown.

More: Niyo: Senior TE Tyler Hunt symbolic of resourceful, unbeaten Spartans

“They switched up their offense and did not hit our perimeter as much,” said Indiana linebacker Micah McFadden, who had nine tackles. “They were trying to hit it inside the tackles. I think our defensive line did a good job of knocking their offensive line back and playing their gaps. Everybody else did their job of flying around to the ball and hitting their gaps. I think (the defensive line) did the best job out of anybody.”

Still, Thorne felt fortunate the Spartans finally moved the ball in the second half — Thorne hit tight end Tyler Hunt for a 12-yard scoring pass — and took advantage of a big day from the defense, which forced three turnovers and scored a touchdown of its own.

“It feels awesome to get out of here with a win,” Thorne said. “We’re not happy about how we played offensively, at the same time, give credit to their defense. They might not rank that high in the country, but today we were the fourth top-10 team they played. We knew they’d be really good and we’re excited to get out with a win, but at the same time, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Clean it up

Michigan State didn’t play well offensively, but it was also lacking its share of discipline.

The Spartans were flagged for a season-high 12 penalties, which totaled 134 yards. Included in that were three pass interference calls, a roughing the passer, a personal foul hands to the face call and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on a dead ball.

“We’ve got to clean up the penalties,” Tucker said. “You have foolish penalties and you have aggressive penalties. The foolish penalties we just have to eliminate through discipline and focus. And then the aggressive penalties we clean up with technique. We’ll coach those things up off the tape and a lot of those types of things are learning experiences.”

Quite the catch

It wasn’t all bad for Thorne. He did have a catch that was as impressive as anything Reed or Nailor have had this season.

With a 10-9 lead, Thorne handed the ball off to Jordon Simmons from the Indiana 34-yard line. Simmons ran to his left, tossed to tight end Tyler Hunt coming around the other way, and Hunt threw downfield to Thorne. The quarterback went up in the air and pulled the ball down, getting one foot in along the sidelines for a 15-yard gain.

“That’s going to have to go up there with a few of the catches I had in recess back in elementary school,” Thorne joked.

It was first called incomplete, but replays showed clearly Thorne was in bounds.

The Spartans took advantage three plays later when Thorne hit Hunt with a 12-yard touchdown pass.

Extra points

Michigan State was again without running back Elijah Collins and Drew Beesley.

… Cornerback Marqui Lowery was called for pass interference in the second half and appeared to hurt his ankle on the same play. He limped off the field and did not return.

… Tight end Trenton Gillison was on the sidelines but was not in uniform.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau