No. 25 Michigan State struggling to find its stride
After a closer-than-expected win over Utah State in the season opener, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio pointed out that this was nothing new for the Spartans.
"You want to pound somebody 50 to nothing, that's not happening too often," he said. "It certainly hasn't happened here in my time. We're just eking, just trying to find those inches."
Then last weekend, Michigan State found itself in another close game — and came up short.
Arizona State beat the Spartans on Saturday night on a last-second field goal, leaving Michigan State at 1-1 heading into its open date. The Spartans came into the season with high expectations and a wealth of returning starters, but they've looked eminently beatable so far.
"Either people get pulled apart or they get brought together, and it's my feeling that things like this ... forges unity, solidarity, perseverance and probably the most important thing, it forces action," Dantonio said. "We need to take action."
After winning 10 games last season, the Spartans certainly looked like they'd have a shot at the Big Ten title in 2018, but they haven't hit their stride so far. Michigan State beat Utah State 38-31 and led Arizona State 13-3 at the start of the fourth quarter. If the visiting Spartans had held on Saturday, Dantonio's comment about pulling out close games would have seemed prescient, but the Sun Devils tied it in the fourth, then were able to run down the clock and win 16-13 on Brandon Ruiz's 28-yard kick.
Michigan State has moved the ball fine, but the 25th-ranked Spartans certainly haven't maximized their opportunities. Against Utah State, they settled for field goals on two opportunities near the goal line. Against Arizona State, they turned two red zone trips into field goals and wasted another one entirely when Brian Lewerke threw an interception.
Michigan State has achieved a lot of success over the past decade by being able to win tight, defensive struggles, but the Spartans weren't able to do that last weekend. With 4:55 remaining and the game tied, Arizona State took over on its own 21, and Michigan State's defense couldn't get off the field.
"You feel like one got taken away from us that I thought we were in control of, somewhat in control of," Dantonio said. "We played well enough to shut them out for three quarters other than field goals. It got away from us, one side or the other, and you've got to deal with it."
Manny Wilkins threw a 25-yard pass to Eno Benjamin on third-and-8. Then Justin Layne was called for pass interference on third down, and the Sun Devils were in business at the Michigan State 29.
The winning field goal came on the game's final play. The Spartans had let another game stay close, and this time they paid for it.
"One loss doesn't mean the end of everything," Michigan State safety Khari Willis said. "We have got to be better, a lot better as a team."
After this break in their schedule, the Spartans open Big Ten play on the road against Indiana on Sept. 22.
"You stub your toe, you've got to get back in the ring and you've got to get back in there and do what you're supposed to do and change the results," Dantonio said. "If you feel sorry for yourself, you're going to be chasing bad times."
NOTES: Dantonio said P Jake Hartbarger is out six to eight weeks with an injury.