Chmura: Utah State was tough – but not for the reasons you think

Opening day never is easy for Michigan State. Regardless of how high the expectations are, this program seems to thrive on giving fans their weekly heart attack every game day, no matter who their opponent is.

“We certainly make it interesting,” said MSU coach Mark Dantonio at the postgame press conference. “I wish we wouldn’t, but that seems to be the trend sometimes.”

The Spartans don’t really have a history of losing early in the year. They typically win their non-conference games. But they often look horrible doing it.

One doesn’t need to look very far to find examples. Opening day a year ago against Bowling Green started with an LJ Scott fumble on the Falcon 1-yard line. The Spartans won 35-10, but they went well into the second quarter down 3-0.

The year before saw an unconvincing win over Furman on the first game of the year. And in 2015, the Spartans would yet again underachieve on opening day, squeaking past Western Michigan by just 13 points.

“I really think that, you know, if you go back over the course of our program here, we’ve won a lot of close games, especially opening games,” said Dantonio. “That’s just been the nature of it. You know, I can’t sit there and say ‘why.’ But we’ve won a lot of close football games.”

This time was a little different. This was the only opener in the past four years where MSU was truly on the verge of losing, relying on a game-winning drive with just a couple minutes to go. Was Utah State a sign of things to come? Should Spartan fans be worried? Perhaps there are a few things to worry about, but it’s not what you might think.

If you expected Michigan State to march out into Spartan Stadium and thrash the Aggies by 40 points, you probably haven’t watched much MSU football in recent years. The Spartans often play to the level of their opponents, especially early in the year. It rarely is a sign of bad things to come. It can be easy to watch an Urban Meyer-less Ohio State team put up a basketball score against Oregon State and wonder why MSU can’t do the same. But that just isn’t Spartan football.

Furthermore, Utah State was a lot better than your average Group of Five school. They returned 18 starters compared to MSU’s 19. They run an up-tempo offense with quick underneath crossing routes that are difficult for any team to defend. They also play solid special teams led by an All-American placekicker. There is nothing easy about USU.

And, really, most of the mistakes the Spartans made were extremely fixable. Dantonio said after the game he that he didn’t know how many penalties his team had. But he did admit that it was too many.

He was right.

The Spartans had nine penalties for 62 yards, two of which came near the goal line. They also had two strange turnovers. One was a Brian Lewerke-attempted shovel pass that somehow turned into a fumble. The other was a pick-six that may not have happened if Darrell Stewart didn’t slip just as the ball was thrown to him.

The Spartans could have won this game convincingly if it wasn’t for simple mistakes. The glaring blunders are not what should worry Spartan fans. In the midst of the obvious errors were three less obvious problems that could cause serious trouble in the future.

All and all, the Spartans still struggled to run the football. It did improve as the game progressed, but LJ Scott’s 3.7 yards per carry would be a disappointing average against any G5 team. After all, imagine how much more difficult it will be to run the ball against the front sevens of Michigan and Ohio State.

“I’m disappointed with what our run game produced,” said MSU offensive coordinator Dave Warner after the game. “You maybe look at it and misinterpret the rushing because those last couple plays we ran the option and got some big chunks right there. You take those plays out of it when we’re trying to bang LJ up in there, a little bit of Connor (Heyward) up in there and we didn’t get much movement.”

Going hand-in-hand with poor rushing is an overarching theme of offensive line issues. Pass blocking was especially lousy; the Aggies had three sacks and three QB hurry-ups, and this was against a quarterback with tremendous pocket presence.

Meanwhile, while eight MSU players caught at least one pass, not a single one of them was a tight end. That’s right, Luke Campbell actually had more receptions than the entire tight end crew.

These are the issues that Spartan fans should worry about because they are not easily fixed. They are also the same problems that haunted the Spartans last year. And they’re all connected to the offensive line one way or another.

Michigan State should be just fine this year. Most of the blatant mistakes made against Utah State will be fixed in time. With so many returning starters, taking an inherent step backward would seem nearly impossible.

However, if this team is to compete for the Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff, they need to run the ball with more conviction. They need to protect their quarterback and find ways to get tight ends involved. None of these things were in play against Utah State, and we’ll have to wait and see if they do improve against Arizona State next week.

“Somehow, someway we’re 1-0,” said Dantonio. “So things could be a lot worse…we’re never going to apologize for winning a football game. But with that being said, we need to do some things better.”