Jake Hartbarger averaged 45.5 yards per punt, and the Spartans came away with two interceptions. Look, I’m grasping at straws here. The reality is that the Spartans were dominated in the Horseshoe, 48-3, in all three phases. While today was bad (the worst loss of the Mark Dantonio era), the sky is not falling.
Spartans Dominated in the Horseshoe
The Offense Was Bad
Brian Lewerke was under constant pressure, being sacked six times. He got happy feet even when he wasn’t under pressure, overthrowing several throws while the game was still of consequence. For what it’s worth, he was 18-of-36 on the day, but threw two interceptions and seven straight incompletions at one stage. The young offensive line was dominated. Cole Chewins and Luke Campbell were simply brushed aside by Ohio State’s outstanding front seven. The Spartans averaged a paltry 1.9 yards per rush- not exactly the Spartan football of recent vintage.
Ohio State brought a lot of pressure, relying on their corners to win the battles in man coverage. To say MSU lost these battles is like saying Custer lost at Little Big Horn. Cody White led the team with five catches for 42 yards. The “leaders” on the day for the Spartans is largely of trivial importance.
From a game summary perspective, MSU started brightly offensively. They moved inside the Ohio State 40 on the opening drive before being pushed back by a sack. That would be the closest they would get until a field goal on the last play of the first half. From there, it was a bloody mess. Michigan State did not pick up another first down until they trailed by four touchdowns. The numbers are sort of hard to fathom for an offensive that has looked so potent of late. Successive drives yielded -2, -1, 0, 0, and 12 yards respectively. There is only so much analysis that can be done when it’s that bad: suffice to say, the Spartans lost every possible one-on-one battle.
The Defense Was Bad
As ineffective as MSU’s running offense was, Ohio State’s was just as effective. Mike Weber broke off touchdown runs of 47 and 82 en route to a Buckeye 335-yard rushing display. This all against a Spartan defense that had just come off ending Saquon Barkley’s Heisman Trophy campaign. It’s unfair to point fingers on a day when the entire unit was so poor, but suffice to say some heretofore standout performers didn’t show up.
The only thing that stopped Ohio State in the first half was Ohio State: a bad snap yielded a 3-and-out when the game was still 7-0. The idea that this game was ever just 7-0 boggles the mind a bit. It always felt like a four-touchdown game, before it caught and passed that mark. After that bad snap, the Buckeyes ripped off four straight touchdown drives, never looking particularly bothered. David Dowell intercepted a pass to set up the said field goal to close the halftime deficit of 35-3.
This brief optimism was quickly shattered by another touchdown, this one a 48-yard pass from JT Barrett to Benjimen Victor. At 42-3, the Buckeyes put the game on cruise control. There is no doubt that they came out with a renewed edge after being dominated by Iowa. The Spartans were outgained 524-195, and the Buckeyes averaged over 8 yards per play. The numbers don’t matter: what is important is that every single player on Michigan State’s defense produced their worst performance of the season on a day where their best was likely required.
The Sky Isn’t Falling
To be clear, the loss itself was inexcusable. There is losing to a better team, and then there is looking like a junior varsity team. However, some perspective must be returned to this season. After last year’s nightmare, wouldn’t any Spartan fan have taken 2-1 against their three Big Ten East rivals? The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Steps backward are part of having a young team. From a seasonal standpoint, the loss in Evanston two weeks back was much more frustrating because of its winnability. Given the difference in emotion and talent level, on this day, Ohio State would win 100 times out of 100. This team graduates only 13 seniors, and most of them don’t play much. Next season, the Wolverines and Buckeyes have to come to Spartan Stadium, where the rugrats will be all grown up.
The next two weeks are truly must-wins. Maryland on Senior Day followed by a trip to Piscataway to play Rutgers were games even pessimistic Spartan fans had pencilled in as wins in September. This team cannot allow the Buckeyes to beat them twice. If they handle business, as they should, they will finish 9-3 and play in a Florida bowl game. One way of looking at 9-3 is 3-9 through the looking glass. Perhaps the Spartans will put on their mad hat in the coming weeks.