Michigan State: Five things we learned

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Damion Terry

Quarterback issue needs to be addressed: Coach Mark Dantonio said he doesn’t want a quarterback controversy, but that might be exactly what he is dealing with after pulling fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor in the fourth quarter in favor of junior Damion Terry. By his own admission, Dantonio said the issues on offense Saturday against BYU weren’t O’Connor but that he was simply trying to spark the stagnant offense. It didn’t work right away as Terry was intercepted on his first drive before leading MSU to its second touchdown with the game already out of reach. While the move was cheered by fans when it happened, it’s difficult to say if it’s a move Dantonio will make permanent. Terry had his issues, as well, and O’Connor was hurt again by dropped passes, two coming from Monty Madaris. There’s not an easy answer and there’s no guarantee a change will suddenly result in wins. And there’s the matter of whether redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke gets a shot, or if none of it matters because MSU will be looking for freshman Messiah deWeaver to take over next year. Whatever the answer, it’s clear, the QB position is a bit of a mess right now.

Play-calling is an issue, too: The offense overall is a mess, too. Michigan State opened the game with a 15-play drive that ended with an 8-yard touchdown run from Gerald Holmes that gave it an early 7-0 lead. It was a balanced drive that saw O’Connor go 6-for-8 and throw on first down three times. After that, however, co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner went back into a shell and took the ball out of O’Connor’s hands. Michigan State had only three more drives in the first half and threw the ball a grand total of one time. Its last two drives of the first half featured eight runs and two punts, with Warner saying field position dictated the calls, forgetting apparently that a 16-yard run from Holmes gave MSU a first down at its 22, only to see three straight runs before another punt. Dantonio scoffed at the notion he would take over play-calling duties from Warner, but as it stands, there seems to be as much blame on the game plan as there is on the players and the execution.

Offensive line badlybeaten: None of the previous issues let the men up front off the hook. The offensive line was beaten by a BYU defensive front that entered the game allowing 444.2 total yards a game and 134 on the ground. MSU, however, managed to rush for just 85 yards. And if that wasn’t enough, Michigan State quarterbacks were sacked three times as the Spartans did little against the 120th ranked passing defense in the nation. The Spartans shuffled things up front this week as Brandon Clemons moved from offensive guard to play defense. That led to redshirt freshman Tyler Higby getting his first start as fifth-year senior Kodi Kieler moved to left tackle. None of the movement seemed to help as the Spartans were beaten up front, something that is becoming a trend this season.

MSU in 'win-now' mode, not looking to '17

Defense nearly as bad as the offense: The defense is hardly getting off scot-free, even though it has been dealing with injuries. Linebackers Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke were out again, as was defensive tackle Raequan Williams. However, the Spartans followed another solid first half with another poor second. Michigan State allowed 28 second-half points, including 21 in the third quarter, and failed to sack the quarterback for the second straight game. Add in an abysmal 10-for-16 for BYU on third-down conversions and Michigan State’s defense is playing at a level that is nearly matching the offense in frustration. The lack of pressure on the quarterback might be the biggest problem, and when one of your safeties (Montae Nicholson) finishes with 17 tackles — many of them downfield — it’s a pretty good sign your defensive line is struggling.

Punt units not doing the job: Special teams continue to be anything but special for Michigan State. There were no egregious errors this week as no snaps were botched and Michael Geiger didn’t miss any field goals — of course, he didn’t attempt any, either. But the punting of sophomore Jake Hartbarger was poor as he averaged just 37.8 yards on five punts and often left BYU with solid field position. Add in the fact a Michigan State punt return is judged successful as long as the possession changes, and it’s a special teams unit that has no chance of being explosive. The coaches have talked about players that could be difference-makers returning kicks, but they’ve gotten little to no opportunities as the conservative approach has been winning out.