A struggling offense is no longer Michigan State’s biggest concern.
The Spartans’ mounting losses are.
Fans flooded the Memorial Stadium field after Griffin Oakes’ 20-yard field goal as Indiana stunned the 16th-ranked Spartans in overtime on Saturday night, 24-21. It was MSU’s first loss to the Hoosiers since 2006, John L. Smith’s last year as head coach.
Oakes missed a 33-yarder three plays earlier, but MSU’s Drake Martinez was called for a leaping penalty that allowed Indiana to keep the OT drive alive and recapture the Old Brass Spittoon after rallying from a 14-point hole with three unanswered touchdowns.
“There is a standard here, and there is a bar that has been set. We have to play to that bar every week,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. “You have to have high expectations, and I still have very high expectations. There’s not a team we play that we can’t beat, not one. But we have to play better. ...
“We lost this football game, so we’re behind the 8-ball. Again. But we’ve been there before.”
The Spartans’ back-to-back Big Ten championship dreams appear to be all but over. And their problems are mounting, along with injuries.
Linebackers Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke were hurt and missed the game. Cornerback Darian Hicks injured his hip early in the second half and did not return, while defensive tackle Raequan Williams and offensive lineman Brian Allen were among the other players who got dinged up in the game. Defensive tackle Malik McDowell also was ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter.
The Spartans (2-2) are 0-2 to start Big Ten play for the first time since 2007, Dantonio’s first season. They host BYU at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Spartan Stadium in a nonconference game, with plenty of problems to fix.
“This one’s gonna sting for 24 hours until we watch it (Sunday),” senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor said. “That’s our job as leaders to get everybody rallied back and remind everybody what this program is and not to get used to this and this isn’t what we’re about. Just clean up the mistakes, because everything that happened today is on us.”
O’Connor marched MSU 75 yards in 13 plays, using 4:27 of the final 4:38 of regulation. A touchdown run by Gerald Holmes was overturned on replay, but O’Connor hit tight end Josiah Price for a 2-yard score on fourth-and-goal with 11 seconds left, and Michael Geiger’s extra point tied the score at 21-all.
But on the first possession of overtime, O’Connor was sacked on back-to-back plays, then Geiger’s 49-yard field-goal attempt fell well short. All Indiana had to do was get into range for its own kick.
“Not very good in overtime,” Dantonio said, “that’s for sure. … At the end of the day, you gotta win. It’s not good enough to say, ‘Well I played well, I coached well.’ And it starts with me, it starts at the top.”
Said Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson, “You don’t beat that team if you’re not playing kind of OK in all three areas, because they’re a prideful program – great players and great tradition. So that was a good team win for us.”
With 4 minutes left in the third quarter, MSU had a shotgun snap nearly bounce off R.J. Shelton as he ran in motion. Indiana’s defenders shot through the confused Spartan offensive line, forcing a still-stunned O’Connor to roll to his right. He heaved it to a wide-open Delton Williams for a 24-yard touchdown to give MSU a 14-0 lead.
That’s when the Hoosiers (3-1, 1-0) stormed back on three straight possessions.
A quick slant from quarterback Richard Lagow to receiver Ricky Jones for 57 yards on the next offensive play. Facing third-and-goal at the 5, Lagow handed off to Mitchell Paige on a jet sweep. The receiver stopped and threw back to the left side as Lagow released and caught the pass as he crossed the goal line for a touchdown late in the third quarter.
The Hoosiers tied it on their next drive, scoring with 8:23 left in the fourth. A 40-yard pass from Lagow to Luke Timian and got Indiana into MSU territory, then Lagow hit Jones for a 22-yard touchdown as two Spartan defenders got tangled up with fellow receiver Nick Westbrook.
Indiana got a 44-yard run to open its next drive, then Lagow hit Paige for a 15-yard TD pass to Paige, just over the outstretched arm of leaping linebacker Andrew Dowell, to give the Hoosiers the lead.
“You gotta give it to them,” MSU safety Demetrious Cox said. “They made big plays.”
Lagow absorbed a big hit from McDowell on his last TD pass, and the MSU defensive tackle was ejected for targeting and received a personal foul. He will miss the first half of the Spartans’ game against BYU next Saturday, per NCAA rules.
McDowell tweeted after the game: “I’m too ruff for football!!”
“I heard about it from all of our assistant coaches, but I really can’t comment on that. Didn’t see it,” Dantonio said of McDowell’s ejection. “I know that it was in question. That’s all I’ll say.”
On the second play of the Spartans’ second drive of the game, O’Connor executed a perfect play-action fake, and Shelton broke free down the left sideline behind three Indiana defenders. O’Connor launched the ball from his own 5-yard line and hit Shelton in-stride at the Indiana 45. The senior receiver outrace Hoosiers cornerback Rashard Fant across the field to the front right pylon for the 86-yard touchdown.
It was the only score of the half, as MSU led 7-0.
Shelton finished the game with a career-best 141 receiving yards on seven catches. O’Connor went 21 of 35 for 263 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. MSU held the ball for 33 minutes, 34 seconds. The Spartans had 438 yards of offense to the Hoosiers’ 437 and the same number of turnovers (one).
“It’s a disappointing loss, certainly if you look back. I mean, a very disappointing loss,” Dantonio said. “I thought we could have won the football game.”
But being close to winning, as Dantonio said, doesn’t produce championships.