Niyo: MSU’s shortcomings on display against Notre Dame

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Brian Lewerke sits on the turf after being sacked by Notre Dame.

East Lansing — There’s always a give-and-take with a young football team, compromises that coaches have to live with and concessions that fans are asked to make.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to reconcile the numbers — or the numbness — after a lopsided loss like the one Michigan State endured Saturday night.

A 38-18 thumping by Notre Dame didn’t really add up, but that doesn’t mean it was hard to figure or easy to swallow, though Mark Dantonio was asked to do both as he stood at the postgame podium late Saturday night, glancing down at the sheet of paper in front of him. The one that showed the Spartans piled up nearly 500 yards of offense, converted 11-of-19 third downs and held a 10-minute advantage in time of possession.

“Statistics can lie to you,” he shrugged.

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Results can, too, sometimes. But on this night, Michigan State’s mistakes merely magnified some of their shortcomings under those newly-installed lights at Spartan Stadium, as the Irish took everything the hosts gave them and made them pay a steep price in front of a crowd of 74,023 and a national TV audience.

Three crucial first-half turnovers doomed Dantonio’s team in this one, staking Notre Dame to a 28-7 halftime lead. And each one highlighted the larger dilemma for the Spartans, who were facing their first real test of this fall semester. Because as much as everyone wants to grade this Michigan State season on a curve — youth is being served, along with some serious crime and punishment — everyone knows college football’s a pass-fail course.

So when quarterback Brian Lewerke, making just his fifth career start, throws a pick-six on Michigan State’s first possession, it’s hard to ignore. Harder still when he fumbles on an ill-fated scramble at his own 24-yard line early in the second quarter. Or when LJ Scott — a senior who has been plagued by ball-security issues of late —going to the end zone on the Spartans’ next drive.

No, as offensive coordinator Dave Warner said, “The turnovers stick out like a big, sore thumb.”

And though Dantonio was adamant that he’s not going to be doing any finger-pointing, the points on the scoreboard did it for him.

Guess again

Lewerke looked like a green quarterback on the game’s first turnover, a pick-six on which he either got caught assuming — or guessing. In either case, he got burned, as cornerback Julian Love was sitting in zone coverage and waiting to pounce as Lewerke telegraphed a throw to Darrell Stewart.

“Saw it coming,” Warner said, “but I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Neither could Lewerke after he’d let it go, as Love took a poor throw and made it look much worse, racing 59 yards to the end zone for a 14-0 lead less than 5 minutes into the game.

“That was just a bad decision on my part,” Lewerke agreed.

There’d be others on this night, but none worse than his fumble on a third-down scramble that was going nowhere early in the second quarter. He got caught with the football away from his body as he tried to avoid a tackle near the sideline, and his fumble — his fourth (two of them lost) in three games — gave the Irish possession deep in Michigan State territory. Six plays later, it was a 21-7 deficit.

“It’s something that we talk about all the time,” Warner said. “That’s part of a quarterback’s job, is decision-making. The biggest part of his job is decision-making.”

And until Lewerke does a better job of that, the Spartans are going to lose more games than they win, now that they’ve finished Mid-American Conference play and moved on to bigger challenges.


Then again, in many ways, this still feels like an apprenticeship, especially when you hear Dantonio try to rationalize the good, the bad and the ugly.

He wasn’t pleased with his team’s run defense, and he was seething over a neutral-zone infraction that negated a third-down stop – one of nine penalties the Spartans committed.

But some of the other negatives?

“I’m not gonna go over and yell at a guy when he’s trying to make an effort play,” he said. “These guys are trying to make plays.”

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So was Scott when he broke a couple tackles on a 14-yard run to the end zone, only to have the ball stripped as he crossed the goal line. That’s the second time that’s happened to him this season — two touchdowns wiped away just like that — and the third fumble he has lost this season.

Scott apparently got an earful from senior co-captain Chris Frey after this miscue. But he also got some encouragement from Gerald Holmes and Lewerke on the bench, and another vote of confidence on the sideline from Dantonio, who only yanked his No. 1 back for a series.

“Nobody feels worse than LJ,” his coach said.

Dantonio went on to reiterate that ball security wasn’t an issue for most of Scott’s career. Nor was it for Michigan State, which led the Big Ten in turnover margin in 2013 and ’14 and was tied for second in that category in 2015.

But that was then, and this is now. The Spartans, who were 10th in the league in turnover margin last season, are dead last right now. And as they get ready to host Iowa in the conference opener this week, Warner, for his part, seems to be at a loss when it comes to all the giveaways.

“I think we’ve got to change our approach maybe,” he said. “Because what we’re doing is not working. We’re doing what we’ve been doing for years and years around here, and we’ve been very good with protecting the football. But it’s not taking place right now.”

No, what’s taking place doesn’t add up when you put it in that context. But this season isn’t about the past. If anything, it’s about the future. And as tough as that is to stomach for some, there’s no way around the fact this team isn’t ready yet to play mistake-free football.

“As the games go on,” Lewerke said, “we’ll eventually get to that point.”

The sooner, the better.