MSU's Brian Lewerke, Joe Bachie and Cody White talk about the Spartans' loss to Arizona State on Saturday night. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
You can get lost in the desert, easy.
So that’s the hazy concern now for Mark Dantonio's Michigan State team, figuring out where this season goes after a withering defeat in triple-digit temperatures at Arizona State on Saturday night.
It wasn't so much the final result, a 16-13 gut punch as the Sun Devils kicked a 28-yard field goal as time expired. No, it’s what led to it, as the Spartans allowed the home team to hang around all night, then watched a 10-point lead evaporate in the fourth quarter.
“When you lose by three points you can point your finger at the little things,” Dantonio told reporters after the loss. “Everything is a completely different situation if we come in here and we win, 16-13. You know, everybody’s happy and we’re moving on. But that’s not the case.
“So you’ve got to take both ends of the stick. We’ve won a lot of close games here, and this one we lost.”
And how they deal with that will say a lot about the Spartans, who’ve grown accustomed to winning these sort of games, as Dantonio noted. Over the last four-plus seasons, the Spartans were 15-5 in games decided by eight points or less — and three of those losses came in that disastrous 2016 freefall.
But a week after escaping Utah State’s upset bid in a sloppy season opener, it was a different fate Saturday night, and what Dantonio had described as “just eking by” days earlier felt more like an “eek” as Michigan State made too many critical mistakes in the end.
“One play can do it when it’s a close game,” he said.
So can one game in college football, though, as momentum builds — in either direction — and teams try to forge an identity that’ll define their seasons. One nonconference loss on the road in early September hardly ruins a season, but it plants a seed of doubt. Likewise, a win Saturday — especially in those conditions — could have done wonders for the Spartans going forward, and Dantonio surely knows it.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio talks about his team's loss to Arizona State following Saturday's game in Tempe, Ariz. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Big Ten teams are now 0-for-10 at Sun Devil Stadium over the years, which is why that 7.5-point spread in the Spartans’ favor felt like a mirage. If anything, Saturday’s loss was a rather extreme reminder of the flipside of all those fun home-and-home nonconference series Michigan State has scheduled recently. (Oregon and Notre Dame preceded this one, with Miami (Fla.) and Boise State to follow.)
And there’s no telling how big a role the external factors — the heat, the travel and the late kickoff — played in this game. Dantonio refused to accept any of it as an excuse publicly, while Arizona State coach Herm Edwards was crowing afterward about how his team took advantage of a fatigued opponent.
The larger issue for Dantonio & Co., though, is that many of the same problems that plagued the Spartans a year ago look to be an issue again this fall, and most of them are found at the line of scrimmage, from a defense that doesn’t generate enough pressure without blitzing to an offense that’ll force the coaching staff to rely heavily — maybe exclusively, at times — on Brian Lewerke and his receiving corps.
Michigan State never found a consistent running game in 2017, averaging less than 4 yards per carry, a mark only a handful of Big Ten teams failed to reach. (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska were the others.) And that was with Lewerke doing much of the dirty work, finishing as the team’s second-leading rusher (559 yards at 4.5 yards per carry) as he routinely escaped the pocket to pick up first downs.
This season, it’s more of the same. Maybe even less, actually.
The Spartans’ run game showed some encouraging signs early Saturday. LJ Scott and Connor Heyward ripped off a few big gains on first and second downs, and the team had 44 yards rushing in the first quarter. But all that progress ground to a halt when it really mattered. In the red zone, and specifically in short-yardage situations, where push comes to shove, the Spartans could hardly move.
They scored just once in four trips inside Arizona State’s 20-yard line Saturday, and that came only after a penalty pushed the Spartans back 15 yards and Lewerke hit Cody White for a 31-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter. Earlier, Lewerke was stuffed on a quarterback sneak on third-and-1 from the 14. Scott lost three yards on first-and-goal from the 3. And so on. By the end of the night, they'd abandoned the run altogether, which certainly isn't Dantonio's preferred method of protecting a lead. Lewerke handed the ball off to a running back just once in the fourth quarter Saturday.
Often, it’s a one-on-one matchup that blows up those plays, and there’s no doubt we saw it on at least a couple of occasions Saturday with ASU’s Renell Wren — a freakishly explosive 300-pound NFL prospect — got the better of Michigan State center Tyler Higby. Wren’s done this before: Just watch to the film of Arizona State’s upset of then-No. 5 Washington last October. But the center spot was a big question mark for the Spartans coming into the season — replacing NFL draft pick Brian Allen wasn’t going to be easy — and it remains glaringly so.
Still, it’s more than one position, or even one position group, and Dantonio was quick to argue that point in his postgame press conference when asked whether he saw some of these same struggles with the offensive line — also missing injured left tackle Cole Chewins — in preseason camp.
“It’s hard to say whose ‘fault’ is it,” Dantonio said. “I know human nature is, ‘Let’s pin it on a certain group of guys.’ Let’s just say it’s Michigan State football and leave it at that. … And coaching, especially.”
The coaches will have time to fix their faults, with an early bye week before the Big Ten opener at Indiana on Sept. 22. That worked to their advantage back in 2014 after a similarly uncomfortable trip to Oregon in Week 2. And with injuries already piling up — affecting the run game, the pass rush and even the punt team Saturday night — the Spartans probably could use a break right now.
“I don’t worry about our football team,” Dantonio insisted. “I don’t worry about our leadership. I don’t worry about us going away. It’s just … hey, it’s tough out there.”
But he knows this, too. If the Spartans can’t fix some of what’s broken at the moment, it’s only going to get tougher.