Niyo: Buckeyes’ wave crashes Spartans’ title hopes

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Columbus, Ohio — There’s an ebb and flow in college football that’s impossible to ignore. The waves of emotion roll in, they roll out and sometimes there’s not much a coach can do about it.

Mark Dantonio does a better job of stemming the tide than many of his peers. But even he admitted Saturday that it didn’t take long to see the “wave of momentum on the other side of the field” at Ohio Stadium and know what was coming next.

He’d tried to warn his players throughout the week in practice, that the Spartans’ upset win over Penn State last weekend wouldn’t matter any more than Ohio State’s embarrassing loss at Iowa. And he tried again shortly after Saturday’s noon kickoff, with the Horseshoe starting to rumble after a quiet pregame and the pace of the Buckeyes’ play threatening an early breaking point.

“We got the huddle and Coach D just said, ‘Don’t let the tide start turning,’ ” said linebacker Chris Frey, the Spartans’ senior co-captain who grew up in Columbus.

By then, though, just about everyone in the stadium — from the crowd of 107,011 in the stands to the players on one sideline, if not both — sensed it might already be too late.

“And then they go out and score another touchdown,” Frey said, shaking his head.

And that was that. The Spartans weren’t just taking on water at that point, down 21-0 less than 20 minutes in. They were capsized, headed for their worst-ever loss to the Buckeyes — the 48-3 final margin topped even a 42-0 loss here in 1979 — and a humbling flight home late Saturday afternoon.

“Disappointing, frustrating … all of the above,” linebacker Joe Bachie said, when asked to explain how it felt. “I mean, they just had their way with us today.”

And that feeling they’d had the day before, arriving in Columbus in control of their own destiny, with the Big Ten East title on the line, well, that was long gone.

“You’ve got to play better and step up to the stage when it’s there,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said. “This was a chance to be able to go to the Big Ten championship. You’ve got to step up and play better than we did.”

In every facet of the game.


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‘A meltdown happens’

Dantonio began his postgame comments with a checklist of things his team didn’t do well Saturday. Receivers couldn’t get separation. The pass protection broke down too quickly, and Lewerke missed some throws when it didn’t. The Spartans couldn’t run the ball. They committed three turnovers. And the breakdowns were just as alarming on the other side of the ball. Michigan State didn’t tackle well, couldn’t get pressure, gave up too many big plays.

“And consequently,” Dantonio said, “a meltdown happens.”

Stuff happens in this sport, though, as Ohio State’s Urban Meyer noted Saturday.

“College football, (with) 18- to 22-year-olds, it’s a game of momentum,” he said. “The brow-beatings that take place, you need these kinds of things.”

And maybe he’s right, although his team will need some help to find its way back to college football’s playoffs, even if the Buckeyes manage to run the table and beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

Last week’s stunning loss at Iowa probably torpedoed Ohio State’s national title hopes. But it may have set the stage for Saturday’s runaway win, as the Buckeyes seemed determined to make amends after getting bullied up front by the Hawkeyes.

They certainly did, too, dominating the line of scrimmage from the start, as Nick Bosa & Co. brought pressure off the edge and Ohio State’s secondary kept Michigan State’s receiving corps bottled up with man coverage all afternoon.

Lewerke was sacked twice on the game’s first possession, and that probably was the Spartans’ best drive of the game, when all was said and done. On their four first-quarter possessions, the Spartans faced third downs of 18, 7, 12 and 11 and 10 yards, failing to convert any of them. They’d finish the day 4-of-17 on third down, a week after going 10-for-18 against Penn State.

Defensively, Michigan State had trouble with Ohio State’s tempo early and then compounded things by missing fits and failing to get off blocks or bring down Buckeyes on initial contact. The Spartans came in allowing just 87 yards a game on the ground — third-best in the country — but Ohio State had 253 rushing yards in the first half alone Saturday, as J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber took turns breaking off big gains.

“Really, we just came apart,” Dantonio said.

When it was time to officially concede, the Spartans still took their lumps Saturday. Dantonio pulled Lewerke on Michigan State’s final fourth-quarter drive, replacing him with redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver. But when the coaches sent him into the game, the young quarterback had forgotten his play-call wristband.

“That’s like running out there without your helmet on,” Dantonio said.

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Find another wave

Yeah, it was that kind of day for the visitors, who looked every bit the 17-point underdogs that Vegas oddsmakers had labeled them. And to be honest, the surprise isn’t necessarily that the Spartans got caught in the undertow here in Columbus, despite the recent history of road wins and tight games in this series. Frankly, it’s that we haven’t seen one or two more of these from this Michigan State team, given all the youth and inexperience at key positions.

The challenge now is to find another wave, though. With two games left on the schedule, home against Maryland and then on the road at Rutgers, the Spartans should finish this season at 9-3, which likely would send them to a bowl game in Florida for the first time since 2011. And considering where they were a year ago, that’d be a huge accomplishment.

“There’s always value in any experience,” Dantonio said.

But only “if you learn from it,” he added.

And if there was a lesson to be learned from this game, other than the obvious — this Ohio State team is still the class of the Big Ten — that’s probably it: At the end of every emotional wave in college football, there’s bound to be a crash.

“You can look across the country now and you can see that these things are happening to a lot of good football teams,” Dantonio said.

Saturday, the Spartans saw it firsthand.