Michigan State: Five things we learned

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Brian Lewerke is sacked by Maryland's Roman Braglio in the second half Saturday night.

1. Signs of life: Michigan State can move the ball when it’s not shooting itself in the foot. The Spartans ran the ball for a season-high 270 yards against the Terrapins, just a week after managing to run for just 51. But the offensive line played well and sophomore LJ Scott was hitting the hole as hard as he has all season, which resulted in a season-high 128 yards on 20 carries, including a 48-yard touchdown run. Junior Gerald Holmes gained 59 yards on 10 carries with a touchdown and quarterback Brian Lewerke ran for 79 yards.

The Spartans also moved the ball well at times through the air as Lewerke connected with senior R.J. Shelton seven times for 89 yards. However, Lewerke is still a redshirt freshman in his second start and missed freshman Donnie Corley on what likely would have been a touchdown pass and took off too early a couple of times when he had the protection to wait for a receiver to come open down the field.

2. More penalty problems: Penalties have been a problem all season and they were a big reason for the loss on Saturday as Michigan State was flagged seven times for 84 yards. And what was just as crucial as the amount of penalties was the effect they had on the game. Three personal foul calls on Riley Bullough were bad enough, including a targeting call, but the last two kept Maryland’s first touchdown drive going while a pair of pass interference calls on Monty Madaris were just as crippling to the offense.

The final one came in the fourth quarter with Michigan State trailing by four but driving into Maryland territory. The call was questionable and coach Mark Dantonio declined to talk about it, but the fact remains, the penalty wiped out a first down that would have had the Spartans near the red zone and instead led to them punting three plays later.

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3. Questionable coaching: There has been plenty of focus on execution by the players throughout the five-game skid, but there has to be an equal share of scrutiny on the coaching staff. At various points the play calling of co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner has been criticized, as has the approach of the defense under Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel. The special teams have also been unable to avoid criticism.

But on Saturday, it was Dantonio who was in the crosshairs for his decision to fake a field goal with one second left in the first half. It wasn’t so much that he decided to fake it, though kicker Michael Geiger was more than capable of kicking a 46-yard field goal with the wind at his back. But to run the ball with Geiger and the ball at the 28-yard line was a bizarre choice. The only way it works is if Geiger takes it the distance, quite a longshot for a kicker. Dantonio’s explanation didn’t exactly clear things up as he talked about a fake Geiger ALMOST scored on last season.

4. Burning redshirts: As the losing streak grows, more and more freshmen are seeing the field for Michigan State, a total that reached nine by the end of Saturday’s game as linebacker Joe Bachie and safety Kenney Lyke were the two latest to ditch the redshirt. Bachie was in because of Bullough’s ejection but Lyke came in because of injuries to Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox. Justin Layne did not start at cornerback but played extensively, the same scenario for defensive ends Josh King and Auston Robertson, as well as defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk.

Corley started again but was held without a catch for the first time this season and offensive lineman Thiyo Lukusa played nearly the entire game at right tackle. The only freshman who has played that did not on Saturday was receiver Trishton Jackson. Dantonio says he’s playing for now, but the number of youngsters – redshirt freshman and sophomores included – keeps growing.

5. Tough to gauge: It’s hard to imagine where the attitude of this team might be heading into its matchup with Michigan. It’s always the biggest game of the season on Michigan State’s schedule and it’s hard to keep the players from talking about it. However, the Wolverines were far from their minds in the wake of a fifth straight loss. They said what was expected, that it was a big game and they’ll need to play better to win. But this time feels different. They say there’s no finger-pointing as they run down the list of mistakes the team made and they talked about hours in the film room to make sure everyone is on the same page.

It seems odd that it’s still being worked on seven games into the season and even more surprising considering which team will be visiting Spartan Stadium next.