Michigan State: Five things we learned

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Spartan running back Gerald Holmes (24) plows through Hoosier tacklers in the fourth quarter.

QB change ahead?

As much as Michigan State has struggled as a whole, Tyler O’Connor is the quarterback and he will be scrutinized. The numbers say he played fairly well against Indiana – 21-for-35 for 263 yards and three touchdowns – but the reality is he’s still inaccurate on a consistent basis, has a tendency to lock in on receivers and was skittish in the pocket at times, none more evident than the two straight sacks suffered in overtime against the Hoosiers.

Mark Dantonio went with O’Connor the entire way against Indiana and said after the game that O’Connor was still the starter based on how the game played out. Dantonio did offer a bit of a caveat, saying watching the game film might tell a different story. But at this point, it doesn’t look like a change is imminent for the quarterback of an offense that only looked good for the middle two quarters at Notre Dame.

High cost

Penalties are killing Michigan State. It was nearly the downfall in the season-opener against Furman, and while the Spartans cleaned up the issues for the most part in the win over Notre Dame and the loss to Wisconsin, it was the flags that proved critical in the loss to the 24-21 loss to the Hoosiers.

The Spartans were called for 11 penalties for 98 yards, and more than one helped stall drives. The most crucial of those came in the fourth quarter with MSU looking to add insurance to its 14-7 lead. O’Connor scrambled for a first down on fourth-and-8, but a holding call on tight end Josiah Price brought it back and MSU was forced to punt. Indiana scored to tie the game on the next drive. The biggest penalty overall came in overtime, when backup defensive back Drake Martinez was called for leaping over the pile on Indiana’s 33-yard field-goal attempt. The kick sailed wide but the Hoosiers got a first down. Four plays later they won the game with a much easier 20-yard field goal.

Kick in the gut: Field goal in OT sends MSU to defeat

Spartans grounded

Michigan State finished with 175 yards rushing, but until the final drive of regulation, finding any consistent success on the ground was difficult. Dantonio said after the game he wasn’t happy with the running game in the first half, and until Gerald Holmes got hot late in the game, yards were hard to come by.

Holmes ended up with 51 yards on nine carries while Madre London had 39 yards on seven carries and LJ Scott had 38 yards on 11. The three are as talented as they come, but open holes have been sporadic as the offensive line continues to work to find some sort of cohesion. The Spartans continue to try different lineups and combinations up front and could be in much better shape by the end of the season. But four games in, it’s not been good enough.

Signs of hope

Defensively, Michigan State was solid and kept the second-best offense in the Big Ten off the scoreboard until there were just 52 seconds left in the third quarter. The Spartans were stout against the run through the first three quarters and were able to generate a bit more pressure on Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow. However, it wasn’t quite enough as the Spartans didn’t record a sack and were only credited with one quarterback hurry, though it seemed like they had more than that.

The Spartans were thin at linebacker with Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke out, and cornerback Darian Hicks left the game in the third quarter with an injury. Defensive tackle Raequan Williams also suffered what appeared to be an arm injury. Even with those injuries, the defense has been the source of any optimism that might exist with the Spartans.

Nothing special

Michigan State didn’t make any glaring special teams mistakes, but it’s clear the Spartans must start getting more out of this unit. Both of Michael Geiger’s field-goal attempts were missed – the first getting blocked and the last missing badly from 49 yards, while the return game has done almost nothing for the Spartans.

With Brandon Sowards returning punts, it’s clear the only priority Michigan State has is securing the possession and not trying to make anything happen. And kickoff returns haven’t been much better. R.J. Shelton returned only one against Indiana and gained 23 yards, hardly doing much to help his average of 19.7 yards. The coaching staff has talked about younger players working in the return game, but none have gotten much of a shot. Perhaps now would be the time.