If ever there was a game lost because of coaching decisions, it was Saturday’s loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes.
In cold conditions, the Michigan State Spartans found a way to stay alive all game long against the No. 10 Buckeyes. But a handful of questionable coaching decisions prevented MSU from taking advantage. MSU dropped another home game, this time 26-6 in East Lansing.
The first controversial decision came before the first play of the game when Brian Lewerke ran onto the field as the starting quarterback. The junior quarterback wasn’t able to get the offense going, totaling only 69 yards on six drives. The most promising early drive ended with a missed Matt Coghlin field goal attempt from 51-yards.
On the other side of the ball, the MSU defense may have played its best game of the season. Ohio State had averaged more than 40 points a game on the season, but was held scoreless through the first quarter. Despite repeatedly being put in near impossible positions, the defense stepped up in every big moment.
Ohio State finally broke the scoreless tie in the second quarter, finishing off a 55-yard drive with a one-yard shovel pass from Dwayne Haskins to Parris Campbell for a touchdown.
On the following drive, redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi took the field, replacing Lewerke. The very first drive with Lombardi at quarterback, the Spartans drove 49 yards and finished with a 44-yard Coghlin field goal. The drive saw Lombardi lean heavily on Cody White, who finished with 115 yards on eight receptions.
The Spartans would inch closer in the third quarter. Despite starting deep in their own territory, one of five MSU drives that would start within the five-yard line, MSU went 74-yards for a 38-yard field goal.
The game nearly changed drastically on that drive when White caught a screen pass and looked down field to make another pass. The play was initially designed to be a pass back to Lombardi, who was set up in screen formation, but after seeing that was covered, White looked deep to a wide open tight end Matt Sokol who caught the pass in the end zone. Unfortunately, the play was called back because of an illegal blocker down field, Kevin Jarvis, who had ran down the field to protect the screen pass.
That play now looks like a clear sign of things to come.
After again taking over inside the two-yard line, the Spartans offense went three-and-out. Mark Dantonio then made the questionable decision to intentionally send the punt snap over the head of the punter and out of the back of the end zone for a safety. In theory, it was an attempt to flip the field and finally get some reasonable field position. It emphatically didn’t work.
The resulting kickoff went out of bounds, giving Ohio State the ball at the 50. The MSU defense forced the Buckeyes to punt, but that again put the Spartans offense at the one-yard line. From there, things went from bad to worse. On first down a mistimed snap from backup center Blake Bueter, who struggled all game, bounced off of the MSU receiver coming across the field in motion. Ohio State jumped on the loose ball in the end zone for a touchdown, taking a 16-6 lead and all but putting the game out of reach for the struggling MSU offense.
To their credit, the Spartans defense never stopped playing. They held Ohio State to just 347 yards, most of which came late in the game after the score felt like too big of a hill to climb.
On the next drive following the OSU defensive touchdown, a fumble again set up a Buckeyes score. This time, the option pitch from Lombardi was off target and Ohio State recovered. Their offense went backwards for three yards on the following drive, but the field position had them well within field goal range, taking a 19-6 lead.
The coaching staff again made a change at quarterback. Lewerke returned to action for the remaining three drives. The games final points came after Lewerke was hit and threw an errant pass, picked off by Shaun Wade. Mike Weber finished off the OSU drive, plunging into the end zone on a six-yard run.
Lewerke finished with 128 yards through the air, Lombardi adding 92 of his own. Both quarterbacks were well below a 50 percent completion rate. Lombardi led the team with 49 yards on the ground on three rushes, one of which went for 47. No other running back rushed for more than four yards.
The loss leaves MSU at 6-4 on the season. They will hit the road next week against a resurgent Nebraska team and finish at home against Rutgers.