East Lansing – The sequence was almost as hard to describe as it was to watch.
But just as Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio tried to explain it late Saturday afternoon – detailing the moment the wheels fell off in the Spartans’ 26-6 runaway loss to Ohio State at Spartan Stadium — the lights went out in the middle of his postgame press conference.
“Oh, this is nice,” Dantonio said, as the interview room fell dark and his humor followed suit. “This is par for the course. There it is right there: Par for the course. That’ll make the internet.”
It did, of course. And that was just as well, because the game that preceded it – like so much of the Spartans’ season to date – failed to provide much in the way of highlight-reel material.
In fact, this was probably a fitting final scene for whatever lofty hopes Michigan State had entering this season, coming off a 10-win 2017 campaign with 19 returning starters and an offense primed for something big.
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Asked to contrast those August dreams with what played out on the field Saturday against the Buckeyes, an early-November performance quarterback Brian Lewerke bluntly termed “embarrassing,” the junior shook his head.
“It’s a night-and-day difference,” he said. “Obviously, it hasn’t panned out the way we wanted it to.”
No, obviously not. And though there’s still a strong chance to finish the season on a upbeat note – with eight or nine wins and a bowl trip to Florida – Saturday’s sloppy effort against Ohio State was a glaring reminder of Michigan State’s deficiencies.
The defense continues to do its job, and then some. But the injuries mounted. The offensive line never gelled. The running game is unreliable, at best. And the quarterback position is now a coin toss that Michigan State’s coaches can’t seem to make heads or tails of, no matter what Dantonio insists.
Between Lewerke’s errant throws and Rocky Lombardi’s erratic play, “I thought we played the quarterback situation as well as we could have,” the head coach said Saturday, even if the results – and the crowds reactions – certainly suggested otherwise.
Lewerke got the start despite a shoulder that throbs with every pass attempt. But after six drives produced four first downs and no points, Dantonio and offensive coordinator Dave Warner finally made the call to the bullpen for Lombardi, who led a 2-minute drive for a field goal just before halftime. The redshirt freshman led another scoring drive to make it 7-6 midway through the third quarter, and the game was “right where we wanted it,” Dantonio said.
Only it wasn’t, really. Because what was a field-position game almost from the opening kickoff had tilted decidedly in Ohio State’s favor, with the Buckeyes pinning the home team deep repeatedly. Michigan State’s starting field position on its first five possessions of the second half read more like a Sudoku puzzle: 5, 6, 3, 1, 2.
And it was near the end of that pinball game that things finally went tilt for the Spartans. After three straight incompletions by Lombardi with Michigan State backed up at its own 1-yard line, Dantonio finally gave in.
“Well, we’re down by 1, and we’re on our fourth punter,” he explained. “William Przystup is his name, in case anybody wants to know.”
And Przystup, a freshman walk-on from Florida, had never punted in a college game prior to Saturday. So the idea of him trying to boot one out of the back of his end zone on a short snap, well, let’s just say it wasn’t all that appealing. So Dantonio ordered long snapper Ryan Armour to intentionally snap it out of the back of the end zone for a safety, trading two points – and a field-goal deficit — for a chance at flipping the field just a little bit.
“And even with that, William asked me, ‘Should I catch it?’” Dantonio said, smiling wryly. “And I said, ‘No, don’t catch it.’”
Of course, his kicker then booted the free kick out of bounds, giving Ohio State possession at midfield again, and after another stop from the defense, Michigan State found itself right back where it started after the Buckeyes downed another punt at the 2-yard line. An offense thats already limited — by the line, by the quarterback, and by coaching — was even more so in that spot.
“You’ve got to be a smart play-caller inside the 10,” Lombardi said. “You can’t do anything too crazy, because as you saw today, bad things can happen.”
The timing was off
Things that made a bad game even worse, in this case, as Lombardi sent receiver Laress Nelson in motion too soon on what was to be another first-down pass. And a fake jet sweep became a botched snap for a fumble that Ohio State recovered in the end zone.
“The timing was off,” Lombardi said. “It’s my fault.”
After the ensuing kickoff, Lombardi fumbled on the first play from scrimmage again, this time with a bad pitch to La’Darius Jefferson that the Buckeyes pounced on at the 15-yard line, setting up another short field goal.
Two plays, two turnovers, and what was a one-point game now felt like an insurmountable lead for Ohio State, especially as Michigan State’s coaches turned back to Lewerke for the remainder of the fourth quarter.
Asked if he was surprised to get yanked, Lombardi paused for a moment before answering, “I’m not gonna comment on that, sorry.”
But at this point, without any consistent run game, that’s probably a moot point. Warner’s offense came into Saturday’s game ranked 109th nationally in scoring offense and they left in even worse shape, converting just 2 of 16 third-down attempts and averaging 4.6 yards per pass. As Lombardi noted later, “There’s no magic wand that you can wave that’s gonna make us score 30 or 40 points, you know?”
Well, if you didn’t know before, you do now. Lights out? Not quite, but Saturday the Spartans were left fumbling around in the dark.