East Lansing — Donnie Corley was alone in the end zone, his hand raised, waiting to be called on, hoping to be noticed.
Tyler O’Connor never saw him, but as he jogged off the field fuming, he knew he would soon enough.
“I know I’ll watch film and I know Donnie Corley popped in the back of the end zone, I think is what I’ll see,” said O’Connor, shaking his head in the aftermath of Michigan State’s stunning 30-6 loss to Wisconsin in Saturday’s Big Ten opener at Spartan Stadium.
Knowing and seeing are two different things in college football, though. And if the Spartans didn’t know it before, they certainly could see it Saturday, as so much of the good work they’d done a week ago under the lights at Notre Dame — not to mention their top-10 ranking — came undone in the light of day here against the 11th-ranked Badgers.
No one felt this loss more acutely than O’Connor, the fifth-year senior quarterback who’d acquitted himself well in South Bend, scrambling and throwing and leading Michigan State to a rivalry win on a big stage.
Saturday, it was a far different feeling, though, as O’Connor made too many critical mistakes against a much better defense, too many decisions that made “a bad play worse,” as he put it. He finished the afternoon a dismal 18-of-38 for 224 yards with three interceptions as Michigan State was held without a touchdown at home in a Big Ten game for the first time in more than 30 years.
Actually, he finished the day on the bench, with backup Brian Lewerke taking over for the final drive of the game, though coach Mark Dantonio was quick to dismiss any talk of a quarterback controversy this early in the season.
Michigan State QB Tyler O'Connor talks about his struggles in the loss to Wisconsin.
“I don’t think you abandon somebody when they’re having a tough day,” Dantonio said, when asked if he’d considered pulling his starter earlier. “I didn’t want to do that. This hasn’t become a quarterback race. That hasn’t become the issue. So we’ll play through the pain here a little bit, and see what happens.”
What happened Saturday was a confluence of things for the Spartans, and most of them were ugly. The offense struggled early, and the defense — still struggling up front, particularly off the edge — had a hard time getting off the field on third downs, as Wisconsin took a 13-6 halftime lead.
O’Connor helped set up the Badgers’ second touchdown by telegraphing a pass to Jamal Lyles while under pressure — Wisconsin's zone blitzes gave Michigan State fits Saturday — resulting in an interception returned the Spartans’ 28.
“It’s all on me,” O’Connor said. “There was a slight miscommunication with protection. But I’ve got to put the ball in a safer spot. It was poorly thrown. It was a stupid mistake.”
There’d be more to come, across the board for his team. After the defense forced a three-and-out to start the second half, giving the Spartans the ball at midfield, LJ Scott lost a fumble — hard to blame him for that one, though — that was returned 66 yards for a touchdown. Later in the third quarter, a high snap on a punt attempt by Michigan State gave Wisconsin possession at the 5-yard line.
And if that wasn’t the back-breaker, O’Connor’s second interception surely did the trick, as the Spartans turned their triangle — or snag — route concept into another failed equation.
“I think if I would’ve hung on a tad longer I could’ve got it to Donnie in the end zone,” said O’Connor, who instead forced a hurried throw into heavy coverage, right to the linebacker scraping laterally across the field.
O’Connor didn’t see the linebacker, either, but he sure found him. T.J. Edwards interception on the penultimate play of the third quarter was the final nail in the coffin, and one of many that’ll haunt the Spartans’ quarterback when he watches film, something he said he planned to do as soon as he got home Saturday.
“We haven’t lost here in a few years for a Big Ten game,” he said. “And it’s my first loss as a starter. So it’s tough, and it eats at you. But it’s still early in the season.”
And as things fell apart Saturday, O’Connor said the message from his quarterbacks coach, Brad Salem, was pretty simple: Keep your head up.
Figuratively, he meant. Which is something senior receiver R.J. Shelton said as well, “Every quarterback has their ups and downs, and we still believe in Tyler. It’s nothing where he should be down on himself.”
But literally, too. Because as much as Dantonio would like to beat teams up front — “Pound Green Pound” and all that — O’Connor’s still going to have to prove he can read defenses effectively and beat them over the top, particularly with a talent like Corley running downfield. He’s also going to have to prove he can handle the blitz better than he did Saturday — “I’ve never really seen that type of pressure coming at me,” he admitted — though the Spartans won’t face many stouter defenses than this one, anchored by a terrific group of linebackers.
The season's certainly not over, and as Michigan State proved last November, a cross-divisional Big Ten loss doesn't necessarily mean much, unless you let it. So that's the message now, one that O'Connor pointed to even as he shouldered much of the blame himself.
“It’s frustrating, definitely,” O’Connor said. “But you can only learn from it.”