Michigan State Football: 5 takeaways from loss to Ohio State

Nov 19, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans safety Montae Nicholson (9) reacts to a play during the first half of a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

What were the five biggest takeaways from Michigan State football’s loss to Ohio State on Saturday?

If you were pleasantly surprise by Michigan State football on Saturday, you’re not alone. The Spartans put up yet another solid fight, falling to No. 2 Ohio State, 17-16. The game was close for 60 minutes and the largest lead for either side was just a touchdown.

The Spartans struck first on the second play of the game thanks to a 64-yard touchdown catch and run by LJ Scott. Ohio State answered back a couple drives later with a score and each team added a field goal before halftime.

Ohio State scored the only touchdown in the third quarter and Michigan State responded with a Scott run near the goal-line in the fourth. With the score locked at 17-16, Mark Dantonio decided to go for two and a potential win with five minutes left, but Tyler O’Connor waited too long and threw a pick in the end zone.

That’s the way the score looked at the conclusion and Michigan State fell to 3-8 on the season, not before making some positive strides, though.

Here are the five takeaways from the tough one-point loss to the Buckeyes.

5. Defensive line is coming together nicely

Even though it didn’t have its best player, Malik McDowell, the Spartan defensive line played very well and Mike Panasiuk looked like a future star. The big defensive tackle stood out, finishing with seven tackles and 0.5 sacks. He held his own in the trenches against a top offensive line in Ohio State.

Robert Bowers also picked up half a sack, as did Demetrius Cooper. The defensive line applied pressure to J.T. Barrett, but it didn’t contain him as much as they would have liked. He finished the day with 105 yards on 24 rushes.

Although the defensive line could have done a better job against designed quarterback runs, and runs in general, you have to be pleased with the progress against the pass. The Spartans finished with three sacks and seven quarterback hurries.

Nov 19, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Terry McLaurin (83) attempts to catch a pass in front of Michigan State Spartans wide receiver Justin Layne (39) during the first half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

4. Secondary is improving by the week

Since the Michigan game, this secondary has looked much more like what we expected at the beginning of the year. The defensive backs are sticking to receivers like glue, and it might have something to do with the fact that they are gaining confidence.

Having been in each game this year, the defensive backs had been a disappointment only because the opposition’s comebacks have been mostly aerial-related. Quarterbacks have been able to engineer comebacks thanks to soft coverage and plenty of time to throw.

Well, the defensive line is starting to get better, and younger, and the secondary doesn’t have to cover for quite as long. Over the past three games, the defensive backfield has allowed just 95.3 yards per contest with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Also, they are allowing just a 42 percent completion rate in that time.

Playing well against the Big Ten’s most dangerous quarterback can be a big confidence booster heading into the final week of the season against Penn State. Trace McSorley is another decent quarterback and the Spartans may have their hands full.

Progress is taking place, though.

Nov 19, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back LJ Scott (3) runs the ball during the second half of a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

3. LJ Scott is the clear No. 1 running back

Is there any question about who the starting running back for the Spartans is anymore? LJ Scott has emerged as the team’s clear top running back and he put together his best career performance against the No. 2 team in the country and a defense which has been considered Urban Meyer’s most athletic in quite some time.

Scott took the second play of the game 64 yards for a touchdown on a little dump pass and then followed that up with a 61-yard run later in the first half. He is looking like a more patient back and he’s waiting for holes to open up, à la Le’Veon Bell, rather than just running into piles like he did earlier in the year.

The sophomore running back ran the ball 19 times for 160 yards and a touchdown, consistently picking up big chunks on the ground. He caught another pass for 12 yards and if he can get more involved in the passing game, he could be the conference’s best back next year — up there with Mike Weber and Saquon Barkley.

Promise and potential are evident. He looks the part of a true No. 1 running back and he is averaging an impressive 5.4 yards per carry on the season. However, that number would be better if the staff trusted him from the third game on. He went four straight games with less than 20 carries and he struggled.

Expect him to be the unquestioned starter next year and hopefully the staff can get him to stay for a senior season.

Nov 19, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio walks the field prior to a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

2. Mark Dantonio is still gutsy

Remember ‘Little Giants’? What about ‘Mousetrap’? Heck, he even had a couple of trick plays on special teams against Nebraska and Iowa a couple of years ago. Mark Dantonio has been one of the best coaches in the country when it comes to calling fake punts and field goals.

Saturday afternoon, which would have been Mike Sadler’s 25th birthday, Dantonio called a fake punt that would have made the late punter proud. On fourth down, early in the fourth quarter, Michigan State was down by seven and had to punt from near midfield. Chris Frey took the direct snap and ran 25 yards with it for a first down.

Although Michigan State couldn’t capitalize on that momentum, that was exactly what the Spartans needed in a crucial situation like that. It proved that Dantonio wasn’t going to just roll over and be content with a slim defeat against Ohio State.

Dantonio is still a great coach; a gutsy coach.

Later on in the fourth, the Spartans scored what would have been the tying touchdown, but Coach D decided to go for two and the potential win instead of kicking the PAT. He had the right idea and no one should knock the decision, but O’Connor just didn’t execute and threw a pick.

Nov 19, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio leads his team onto the field prior to the game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

1. The future is extremely bright

Looking at the roster, there is youth stacked up at every position. While that might not be the best thing for teams looking to get better in a year’s time, the Spartans have coached up and played the young guys enough to give them valuable experience.

Must Read: MSU Football: Top 50 players in school history

What other teams can use a down-year like this as a teaching tool for the future? That’s what makes Dantonio one of the best in the business. He has never missed a bowl game since taking over in 2007, but he’s made the best of a bad situation.

Guys like Donnie Corley, Trishton Jackson, Justin Layne, Mike Panasiuk, Josh King, Auston Robertson, Joe Bachie and Thiyo Lukusa have had their redshirts burned this season and all will pay dividends in the future.

It’s not just the true freshmen that make this future so bright, however. Raequan Williams, Tyler Higby, Cole Chewins, Brian Lewerke, LJ Scott, Andrew Dowell, Khari Willis, Vayante Copeland, Tyson Smith and Josh Butler have also provided sparks this season.

Being in every game this season and playing well enough to potentially pull out upsets over Michigan and Ohio State have given plenty of hope for the future. I’d be shock if this team didn’t triple its wins next season.

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