Another punch to the gut, as the MSU's offense struggled mightily again, this time in a 17-16 loss to Ohio State to open up Big Ten play.
A season that began with so much promise and a few questions has become nothing but questions. Why can't MSU run the ball against talented teams? Why can't the receivers catch? Why is the defense giving up killer big plays. And the ultimate question: Can MSU win the Legends this year?
All the goals are still possible, but unless those questions are answered, the Spartans aren't in a good position.
First, looking back at my keys to the game for Saturday.
Receivers catch the ball: This was good and bad. There were still some drops, but there were also a few good catches. Bennie Fowler continues to have problems with deep balls, but he's the only one who's being thrown to deep, so I guess that means something? Still, the drops were enough to kill some drives, and in a one-point game, you can't have that.
Defensive ends and linebackers contain Miller: This was not good. Miller finished with 23 carries for 136 yards (5.9 ypc). The defense wasn't burned for any huge runs from Miller, but he had 10 runs of at least seven yards. He tried to bounce every run outside, and was able to because of the ends pushing inside. From my perspective in the south end zone, Marcus Rush did a better job than Will Gholston, who was burned quite a few times in my memory. MSU had one sack, but could have had more if they wrapped up better.
Turnovers: This is what kept MSU in the game. Miller threw one interception and fumbled twice, and all three turnovers occurred on MSU's side of the field. Yes, the refs made a huge mistake initially ruling Miller down on the second fumble, which likely would have been returned for a touchdown. But in a close game, you can point to any one thing as being the difference, even if that was the most egregious one. What did MSU do with those turnovers? A punt, a missed field goal and a made field goal. On the other side of things, Andrew Maxwell continues to take good care of the ball. He hasn't thrown a pick since the first half against Boise State.
Three keys for Ohio State:
Beat MSU with speed plays to the outside: The Buckeyes didn't break any huge runs to the outside, but they were consistently able to find the edge for solid pickups, with most of the plays coming from Miller on reads or options.
Make tackles: Other than the incredible touchdown catch/run by Keith Mumphrey, the Buckeyes wrapped up well enough that MSU didn't have any big plays. They did a great job corralling Le'Veon Bell, who wasn't able to get past the linebackers at all.
Miller makes some big throws: He had the one bad interception, but he also had the perfect throw down the sideline for a 63-yard touchdown to Devin Smith, which proved to be the winning play. Miller finished 16-for-23 for 179 yards. Not a great day, but a solid one with a big play — something MSU never got. --
Now, thoughts on MSU's play.
Still not good, but for the opposite reason as last week. MSU couldn't run the ball at all. Bell finished with 45 yards on 17 carries. If you think Bell should have gotten more carries, you didn't watch the game. The Buckeyes were stacking the box (surprise!), and were able to wrap him up every time. His longest run was eight yards, and MSU didn't rush for a first down. That tells you everything.
Credit to Dan Roushar for getting Bell involved in the passing game. He led MSU with eight catches for 58 yards. Roushar is becoming an easy spot to point the blame for fans, but I actually thought he called a good game, given what he has to work with, and especially when Travis Jackson went down with a likely season-ending leg injury. The play-action game worked pretty well, and plays like the Mumphrey touchdown should be called more often. Of course there are bad plays, but I thought the gameplan overall was fine, the execution wasn't.
Maxwell finished 22-for-42 for 269 yards and a touchdown. I thought this was his best game of the year. He consistently made great reads, fit the ball in a lot of tight windows, and showed great presence in a pocket that was always collapsing. Maxwell has thrown at least 29 passes in every game this season. Kirk Cousins did that five times in 12 regular season games last year. Spartan fans should feel really good about Maxwell moving forward.
The receivers are another issue. It looks like Keith Mumphrey (5 catches, 79 yards, 1 TD) should be the No. 1 guy. Tony Lippett (4 catches, 46 yards) had another drop or two, but seems to be getting open. Bennie Fowler (2 catches, 46 yards) had another killer drop. He was supposed to be the top guy, but he hasn't been.
How long until the Angry-MSU-Offensive-Lineman-Hating God (#AMSUOLHG) becomes a thing? Every good OL recruit who comes to MSU gets hurt, along with a few starters every year. Fou Fonoti two weeks ago and now Travis Jackson this year. The unit that was supposed to be a strength is once again a weakness.
Overall, this offense has no identity because the parts are too inconsistent. The line keeps dealing with injuries and struggles, the receivers keep struggling with holding onto the ball. Every drive seemed to stall because of one killer play: a penalty, a drop, a bad throw, QB pressure. I've really begun to appreciate a touchdown drive and how much has to go right for them to happen. Just think about this: MSU reached the red zone just once total against Notre Dame and Ohio State. It was the first drive of Saturday's game, it lasted three plays and resulted in a field goal.
Every week, I'm unsure how much to criticize the group. I think it's pretty fair this time. Over the last two years, the Spartan defense has dominated run-first quarterbacks. The biggest reason was because they've been able to contain them. But of the two they've faced this year, both have consistently been able to get outside and make plays. Everett Golson got out and made some throws, Miller got out and made both throws and runs. How hurt Gholston was, I don't know. But he seemed to get beat on the option read for much of the day.
The outside linebackers also were sealed off. Last year against OSU, five of MSU's nine sacks came from the linebackers. MSU only had one sack, although there were a few "rushes" for a loss of yards or no gain by Miller. It's a different offense for the Buckeyes this time around, but not one MSU hadn't seen before.
Only four players caught the 16 completions for Ohio State, and 12 of them were to Philly Brown on mostly short plays. Of course, the one big play to Devin Smith ended up being the winner, as Johnny Adams was beat. Now, Adams did play decent coverage, and Miller made a great throw, but he's been getting beat for a big play in almost every game.
But again, we can't expect this side of the ball to be perfect. They've played so much while trailing knowing that giving up another score could put them in an insurmountable hole.
Over the last three games (180 game minutes), the Spartans have led for just 24:03, compared to trailing for 128:46. And more than 22 minutes of that time leading was against EMU. The defense is just getting no help from the offense, and they're always under a ton of pressure. (That's also why Maxwell's pass attempts are so high).
That affects the crowd, too. The players say they feed off the fans, but the four home games have completely drained everyone. I was surprised how quiet Spartan Stadium was at time Saturday (and admittedly, I was in a terrible section), but given those time numbers above, it's hard to blame them. Their cheers haven't been rewarded.
What to make of Dan Conroy. The fifth-year senior could be the most-accurate kicker in school history, but he's missed a kick in every single game this year. Yet, he's also made three in each of the last two games. He also hasn't missed from 50+ on the season. Conroy is tied for fourth in the nation with 10 makes, but he also has five misses.
The one bright spot, Mike Sadler was great, averaging 55.4 yards per punt, and the coverage down the field was good, except for that whole blocked punt thing. Nick Hill was only able to return one of four punts. Kevin Muma booted a kickoff out of bounds.
I've said it before, but the margin for error is so small. You look back at things like a few special teams errors being the difference.
As with every game, there have been positives and negatives, but there hasn't been any consistency. I get more in-depth with this in my Freep column, but what is this team's identity? Five games into the season, we don't know.
As for Doctored-Film-Gate, I don't think it's a big deal. If you only saw the headline, it would sound like whining after a loss. But it was something Narduzzi was asked about outside of the press conference. It's not like he went into his press conference and accused Urban Meyer of all sorts of cheating. Narduzzi said they got some film from other opponents, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who thought of Don Treadwell and Miami (Ohio), Ohio State's Week 1 opponent. It is clear, however, that there is a brewing rivalry between these coaching staffs, and it dates back to Narduzzi complaining about Meyer pulling recruit Se'Von Pittman from his MSU commitment. I'd say it's too bad these teams aren't scheduled for the next two years, but I'm sure Spartan fans are OK with that.
It's a good time for a road game. MSU has proven it's not ready for the national spotlight for a bit. The Spartans got Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit to campus twice, including a College Gameday, but they watched two losses. Maybe going back on the road, being on Big Ten Network and finally playing at noon will get things back in order. This team has been in the spotlight and under so much pressure for the last five weeks. Coaches often like road games to bring a team together and get away from distractions. I'm sure that's the focus this week.
Ohio State is not a very good team. MSU isn't either. No one in the Big Ten is. MSU's loss coupled with Nebraska's win at Wisconsin hurts, but a Buckeye win against the Huskers in Columbus next week would even things up. Wins against teams in the Leaders division won't win you the Legends, but they'll give you more margin for error. Too early for scoreboard watching? Probably, but MSU has put itself in a hole.
I'm sure we have a lot more commenters here since football season has started, but we're going to put a stop to the personal attacks right now. TOC has always prided itself on having a knowledgable and respectful community, but the past few games have brought out the worst kinds of fans. I know some of this comes in the immediate postgame reaction post, but don't complain about things for the sake of dumping your anger somewhere. If you have an opinion, back it up with some facts. Please provide some insight. That's the point of this whole thing. We want discussions, not one-line arguments and attacks. There are message boards for that.
We're not asking you to be sunshine blowers, but if you're going to start personally attacking or egging on people, we're going to hand out some bans. Your frustration with recent football games is shared by many, but that doesn't give you the right to be a dick or a troll.