East Lansing — When Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio took the podium on Saturday afternoon, he rattled off all the things his team needed to do to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener at Spartan Stadium.
Run the ball well, don’t turn the ball over, don’t take sacks, get off the field on third down. Those were just a few. And after No. 11 Wisconsin’s 30-6 drubbing of No. 8 Michigan State, it was hard for the Spartans coach to think of an area that would get checked off the list.
“The bottom line is we didn’t do any of those things,” Dantonio said after Michigan State’s first conference loss at home since 2014.
Instead, it was Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) that did nearly everything right.
The Badgers, behind a first-time starting quarterback, took advantage of four Spartans turnovers — five if you include the poor snap punter Jake Hartbarger fell on at the Michigan State 5-yard line — while converting 7-of-14 third downs and their only two fourth-down attempts. They got three interceptions on Michigan State quarterback Tyler O’Connor and returned a fumble 66 yards for a touchdown.
It was that play — early in the third quarter — that told the tale.
Michigan State (2-1, 0-1) had just opened the second half with an impressive three-and-out from the defense and took possession at the 50-yard line, trailing 13-6. After LJ Scott gained 7 yards on first down, he broke through the line on second down and got hit in the back by Wisconsin safety D’Cota Dixon. The ball flew in the air and was scooped by safety Leo Musso, who took it back for the score.
“It’s never as bad as you think and never as good,” Dantonio said. “That’s the nature of things. We had the football, and if we go down and score, all of a sudden it’s 13-all. The game changes. It is what it is.
“I don’t think the game flipped that drastically because of our ability. I think we made mistakes and they forced us into mistakes. Credit Wisconsin.”
John Niyo and Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News break down MSU's 30-6 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook was 16-for-26 for 195 yards and was efficient, leading the Badgers to five third-down conversions in the first half. Running back Corey Clement scored twice and ran for 54 yards while Jazz Peavy had four catches for 96 yards.
Michigan State, on the other hand, could never get going offensively, mustering 325 total yards a week after it piled up 501 against Notre Dame. O’Connor struggled mightily, throwing three interceptions and completing just 18-of-38 passes for 224 yards, many of them coming in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously it wasn’t good enough,” O’Connor said. “I made some poor decisions in some critical parts of the game.”
His first interception came with Michigan State trailing 7-3. The Spartans had struck first on a 48-yard field goal from Michael Geiger and Wisconsin followed with a 1-yard pass from Hornibrook to tight end Eric Steffes.
But O’Connor threw into tight coverage and Wisconsin’s Sojourn Shelton stepped in front of the pass to give the Badgers the ball at the Spartans’ 28.
“Poorly thrown,” O’Connor said. “Stupid mistake.”
The Badgers answered with Clement’s first touchdown run to go up 13-3 with 7:14 left in the second quarter. The Badgers missed the extra point, but it wouldn’t prove to be crucial.
The Spartans added a 41-yard field goal from Geiger late in the half before coming out for the early sequence of the second half that seemed to put the game away.
Coach Mark Dantonio talks about how Saturday's game against Wisconsin got away from Michigan State.
“Obviously it was huge,” Michigan State safety Demetrious Cox said of the opening two second-half series. “We had come out all fired up, and we were ready to make a statement and then that happened. It's unfortunate. You can't lose the turnover battle. That's one thing that Coach Dantonio stresses. I had an opportunity to have an interception and there was a whole bunch of stuff. We had to capitalize on that stuff and the offense has to have better control of the ball, too.”
Wisconsin kept the pressure on from there, forcing another Michigan State punt before marching down the field to extend the lead on a 41-yard field goal from Andrew Endicott with 4:58 left in the third quarter.
The avalanche continued on the next series as Michigan State didn’t gain a single yard and dropped back to punt. The snap was high and Hartbarger couldn’t come down with it, getting tackled at the MSU 5. On the next play, Clement scored to extend the Wisconsin lead to 30-6 with 3:52 left in the third quarter and close out the scoring.
“It's on us,” Michigan State receiver R.J. Shelton said. “The players play and the coaches coach, and we have to get ourselves ready, meaning the players. We came out flat and you know that won't happen again. You know you just have to flush it, learn from it and move on to the next game. We still have our goals in front of us, and we have the whole East (Division) side, and take care of that and we'll still have our goal in front of us.”
Michigan State failed to score a touchdown at home for the first time since 2012 when it lost, 20-3, to Notre Dame. It was the first home Big Ten game it did not score a touchdown since 1985 and was their worst home loss in Big Ten play since a 42-14 setback against Penn State in 2009.
“We’ve got to recollect ourselves,” Dantonio said. “I've said all along, we're still developing an identity. And you know, sadly, it went in a different direction today. But that's when we find out who our leaders are. And we're going to be defined by how we handle our problems, I don't think there is any question about that. We're going to find out who those people are that step up. We gotta keep playing hard.”