Warning Signs Exposed by Wisconsin in Blowout

In Mark Dantonio’s time at Michigan State, a clear culture of winning has been instilled throughout the program, and that belief has only strengthened with each of the five 10-win seasons that have been racked up since 2007.

So you could forgive Spartan Stadium for seeming a little shell-shocked at the conclusion of the Spartans’ 30-6 loss to No. 11 Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon.

Michigan State’s first home loss since 2014, a primetime blowout by future national champions Ohio State, exposed several weaknesses that were mainly ignored in the wake of a cupcake win over Furman and a victory over Notre Dame that looks less impressive in the wake of ND’s loss to Duke. The warning signs many blew off after laboring to a win over Furman were left to be punished by a well-coached, well-drilled Badger team that might just deserve the attention it gained after beating LSU in the first week of the season.

“We talked about it this week at length, that they were a very solid football team,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “They would make you beat them, they were fundamentally sound.”

[su_pullquote]The warning signs many blew off after laboring to a win over Furman were left to be punished by a well-coached, well-drilled Badger team.[/su_pullquote]

On both sides of the ball, Michigan State looked and felt like it was both outplayed and outcoached by Paul Chryst’s team, playing most of the game on their back feet and failing to move the ball consistently until garbage time. By then, it was Brian Lewerke in at quarterback, and given the way Tyler O’Connor lost a game he started for the first time in college, one wonders how fluid the quarterback situation will be moving forward.

While O’Connor was often under pressure thanks to an excellent Badger pass rush, this was still easily the worst game we’ve seen from the fifth-year senior, sample size notwithstanding. He went 18-for-38 for 224 yards and three interceptions, but the statistics can basically be thrown out the window here. This was a performance associated more with Andrew Maxwell in early 2013 than with Connor Cook of the past two and a half seasons: ineffective and frustrating in equal measure.

O’Connor’s refusal to make progressions while dropping back is something that started against Furman but was passed off as growing pains. In South Bend, he took advantage of a weakened Irish secondary to throw together a passable performance. Against a Wisconsin team that was more talented and better coached, O’Connor struggled mightily, to put it nicely. The staring down of receivers works when you’re playing a FCS school, but it does not work against the best team in the Big Ten West.

While the offensive line play left something to be desired, giving O’Connor less time to make decisions, the receivers did about as much as they could given the circumstances. There were a couple drops from the tight ends early on, but when Wisconsin brought blitzes, O’Connor was flat out inaccurate. All three of his interceptions were results of carelessness with the ball in the face of pressure, with the second one coming late in the third quarter while trying to squeeze the ball to Monty Madaris, ignoring a wide open Donnie Corley in the end zone.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]O’Connor’s refusal to make progressions while dropping back is something that started against Furman but was passed off as growing pains.[/su_pullquote]

The pressure from Wisconsin left the MSU passing game confused across the board.

“Obviously, they blitzed more than Notre Dame. That was the biggest thing,” O’Connor said. “It was hard for us to call some plays with that pressure.”

The coaching staff seemed almost underprepared to face blitzes from linebackers TJ Watt and Jack Cichy, who combined for three quarterback hurries and 4.5 tackles for loss.

“We had trouble protecting the quarterback, especially early on,” MSU offensive coordinator Dave Warner noted. “[On] third down situations, they got pressure. I think [O’Connor] was put in some tough situations.”

The score was 13-6 at halftime, as O’Connor’s first interception was forced by a blitz from a free linebacker on third and five at the MSU 30. A pass intended for tight end Jamal Lyles was picked off by UW cornerback Sojourn Shelton and returned to the 28. A third and 12 completion from Hornibrook to wideout Jazz Peavy for 23 yards was the big play on the drive, as Corey Clement’s one yard touchdown run made it 13-3 before a Geiger field goal at the end of the half to go into the half 13-6 Wisconsin.

The obvious turning point in the game was LJ Scott’s fumble early in the third quarter. After an early three-and-out for the MSU defense, the MSU offense took over at the fifty-yard-line. On second and three, a Scott run to the left side forced a fumble by UW safety Dixon D’Cota, where a ball popped up in the air was recovered by safety Leo Musso and taken 66 yards to the end zone, making the score 20-3 Wisconsin with 13:10 left in the third quarter.

On the defensive side of the ball, Riley Bullough’s absence was noticeable. The timetable for his return is unknown, but the linebackers were likely the best unit on the field for MSU over the course of the game. Wisconsin picked up just three yards per carry, and in the early stages of the game, the Spartan defense looked up to the task against redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook.

[su_pullquote]On four separate occasions, UW hit a play of 15 yards or more on third down to keep drives alive, highlighting another blind spot many have had since the start of the season about the Michigan State secondary.[/su_pullquote]

The southpaw from West Chester, Pa. stole the show on the day. The man making his first collegiate start on the road played with the poise of a seasoned veteran, notching 195 yards and a touchdown. Early on, Hornibrook felt the nerves many had expected, getting stripped in the pocket by an impressive Raequan Williams to set up MSU’s first points of the afternoon.

Both Raequan and Kevin Williams looked explosive in the early stages of the game, but as Hornibrook increased in confidence, the MSU pass rush gave the Wisconsin passing game plenty of time to look downfield, something that killed the Spartan defense on third down. On four separate occasions, UW hit a play of 15 yards or more on third down to keep drives alive, highlighting another blind spot many have had since the start of the season about the Michigan State secondary.

Hornibrook may have had an incredible game against the Spartan secondary, but Wisconsin’s receivers were able to find separation at crucial moments. Notre Dame exploited that in their 14-point fourth quarter last week. Especially on third down, despite their two sacks, the pass rush didn’t give Hornibrook enough trouble on the day.

Malik McDowell picked up just a single tackle on the day. Most of the tackling was left up to the secondary, as safety Demetrious Cox was the team’s highest tackler with 14. Either way, it was a disciplined performance from the Badgers, as their penalty for “disconcerting signals” in the middle of the second quarter was their first penalty in six quarters.

MSU’s special teams also performed below their capabilities, as Jake Hartbarger’s dropped snap at 23-6 in the third quarter led to Corey Clement’s second rushing touchdown from five yards out, making the score 30-6 and sending Spartan Stadium into evacuation mode.

Moving forward, Wisconsin moves to 4-0 and faces a gauntlet of an early Big Ten schedule, facing Michigan next week and Ohio State the week after next.

Michigan State faces a long week ahead of their travel to Indiana for next Saturday’s primetime matchup, scheduled for the Big Ten Network at 8 p.m.

There are still a couple questions left to be answered given the flat performance against Wisconsin. Will O’Connor be given a shorter leash against an Indiana defense that let up 33 points in a loss to lowly Wake Forest? How will MSU’s secondary respond to Indiana’s explosive offense?

“Our goals are still in front of us,” said team captain Cox. “There’s no reason for us to hang back and hang our heads. We just have to play better as a whole and come out with more of a chip next week.”