Michigan State Football: Report card for Illinois loss

Nov 5, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; Michigan State Spartans quarterback Tyler O

What does the report card for Michigan State football look like after the Spartans’ loss to Illinois on Saturday?

What has happened to Michigan State football this year? Nearly 12 months removed from finished the regular season 11-1 and making it to the Big Ten title game, this year’s Spartan team is just 2-7 and staring a 10-loss season right in the face.

Rutgers comes to East Lansing this weekend as the only other Big Ten team without a win in conference play and it’s Michigan State’s best remaining chance to record a win before the season ends. Ohio State and Penn State round out the schedule, and those games likely won’t be pretty.

Losing 31-27 to Illinois in Champaign Saturday was a tough pill for this team to swallow and it’s surely another teaching opportunity for Mark Dantonio and his staff, but we thought he’d have enough of those by now.

How did each position group grade out against the Illini on Saturday?

Offensive Line

OL, Last Week: C-

D

Man, this offensive line is tough to read. First off, the unit had a slow start to the season and was allowing sacks left and right as well as pressure to Tyler O’Connor. Then, it figured some things out against Michigan and played arguably its best game of the year. Lastly, it took about 10 steps back against Illinois.

Right when I was about to say this offensive line was on the right track, it turns around and has a performance like this against the Illini. O’Connor and Damion Terry were running for their lives all day long and there were very few holes for the running backs to jolt through.

Kodi Kieler was out for this one and his presence was sorely missed. Miguel Machado continues to be a disappointing player this season as he had arguably the worst game of any lineman this season. He was flagged for multiple holds and false starts and couldn’t seem to block anyone. Thiyo Lukusa replaced him a couple of times and struggled as well.

There is hope for the future with guys like Lukusa and Tyler Higby, but this season has been a big wake-up call.

Nov 5, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; Michigan State Spartans defensive end Auston Robertson (94) pressures Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Jeff George Jr. (3) during the second quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line

DL, Last Week: D+

C-

Another week without a sack. The Spartans have been one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Spartans let Jeff George Jr. sit back and make some big throws in crunch time.

There was slightly more pressure on the Illini this week than the defensive line has gotten in the past, but George Jr. got the ball out in time and it didn’t much matter. He was forced to rush a few of his passes, completing only 13-of-29, and he didn’t really look comfortable back there all day long. You have to give slight credit to the younger guys for stepping up and looking better.

Auston Robertson and Josh King continued to get reps at the defensive end positions and it might only be a matter of time before they’re taking over as starters — likely next season.

However, too often guys like Malik McDowell or Demetrius Cooper were caught over-pursuing on run plays and Kendrick Foster dashed right by them for big gains. He finished with 146 yards and two touchdowns on just 17 carries. That’s unacceptable, but the defensive line was to blame for some of the big holes.

Despite raising their grade from a D+ to a C- this week, the Spartan defensive line continues to be a major disappointment this season.

Nov 5, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; Michigan State Spartans linebacker Riley Bullough (30) and linebacker Chris Frey (23) tackle Illinois Fighting Illini running back Kendrick Foster (22) during the second quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Linebackers

LB, Last Week: C

C-

Unfortunately, I can’t give this unit a pass this week for some horrific overall play that included poor tackling, missed assignments and mediocre coverage against the pass.

In fact, the linebackers were responsible for two late touchdowns that gave Illinois leads — including the game-winning score. One was a goal-line stand and all of the linebackers committed to a run up the gut, but it happened to be a play-action, Ed Davis bit on it and George Jr. floated the ball to a wide open tight end in the back of the end zone.

The game-winning score looked to be a miscommunication at linebacker and Chris Frey was sent chasing a wide open receiver in the end zone but it was too late. The Illini took the lead right back after the Spartans had scored to go ahead 27-24.

Tackling was also a major issue for the Spartan linebackers. While Riley Bullough led the team with 11 tackles and a tackle for loss, he was also a culprit in the missed tackle department. I also remember one play where he pulled the ball-carrier forward toward the end zone on a tackle instead of trying to prevent him from gaining a yard closer to the goal line.

It’s been a mixed bag for this unit in 2016. Bullough and Frey have been bright spots, but Davis hasn’t been the same coming off his knee injury and the loss of Jon Reschke for the year has hurt big time.

Sep 24, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans cornerback Darian Hicks (2) looks to the sidelines during the first quarter of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Backs

DB, Last Week: D+

B-

I actually came away slightly impressed with this unit. No, they weren’t the best group on the team Saturday, but guys like Tyson Smith, Matt Morrissey and Darian Hicks all played well enough to hold George Jr. in check. The Spartan secondary only allowed 140 passing yards and the two touchdowns were arguably on the linebackers.

Demetrious Cox was one of the guys who disappointed yet again. The senior safety, who also happens to be a captain, can’t seem to stay with his guys down the field. Either that, or he continues to miss assignments which should never happen for a veteran player like him.

Hicks, on the other hand, has been the Spartans’ most consistent cornerback this year, whether you want to believe it or not. Fans like to jump on his case and call him out for being an average to below-average corner, but he’s actually one of the better players in the secondary. He stuck with his guys yet again and batted down two passes.

On the season, Hicks has two interceptions and eight passes defended. He continues to be the most underrated corner on the team.

Smith was flagged for a couple of tough pass interferences. One was obvious as he was just unaware of the situation and where the ball was and the latter, which gave Illinois good field position with under three minutes left, was just a pool call. The referee seemed to be confused at who was on offense as Smith had good position and the receiver grabbed him in order to prevent an interception.

Overall, this group could have played a whole lot worse.

Oct 8, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back Gerald Holmes (24) runs the ball during the first half of a game against the Brigham Young Cougars at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Running Backs

RB, Last Week: A-

B

One step forward, two steps back. That seems to be the motto of the run game this season. Michigan State had arguably its best game of the season on the ground against the Michigan Wolverines last week in a losing effort, but it was something to build on — or so it should have been.

After rushing for over 200 yards against one of the best run defenses in college football, the Spartans found it tough sledding against the Illini, for some reason.

LJ Scott started the game off with a bang, grinding out a 15-yard rush, but was held in check the rest of the way. In fact, he ran the ball 13 more times for just 35 yards. Sure, 2-3 yard carries are welcomed over no gain, but that’s all he could muster for the rest of the first half and the start of the third quarter.

Scott began the second half by coughing up the ball and killing momentum for the Spartans on a potential scoring drive. He didn’t see the field much for the rest of the game as Gerald Holmes replaced him.

The junior running back played well, rushing for 78 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries to go along with three catches for 15 yards.

Still, not the best running day for the Spartans as a whole and Scott’s starting job is in question yet again.

Oct 29, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans wide receiver R.J. Shelton (12) secures the ball after a kickoff during the first half of a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Wide Receivers

WR, Last Week: B

B

The announcers made a big deal about the Spartans’ drops this season, but that just hasn’t been the case. However, it was televised on ESPNNews so you won’t get the most veteran broadcasters. Still, the announcer jinx works in mysterious ways and even though drops hadn’t been an issue to this point in the year, they were on Saturday.

R.J. Shelton dropped a pass or two, there were some drops by running backs — although the passes weren’t pretty — and Josiah Price let a ball slip through his fingers in the end zone which nearly cost the Spartans a go-ahead score. Price’s drop was made up for by Shelton who caught the go-ahead touchdown on 4th-and-goal.

Shelton’s score in which he was forced to rise up and toe-tap in the back of the end zone to stay in bounds was the catch of the day and he continues to be the team’s best wide out. He finished with a team-high seven catches for 80 yards.

Price did wind up having a solid day, finishing second on the team with six catches for 65 yards and would have had a touchdown if it weren’t for that drop.

Monty Madaris was out for this one and Felton Davis III stepped up in his absence, catching six passes for 56 yards and Donnie Corley matched his yardage on just two receptions.

Not the best day for this group, but they did play well enough.

Nov 5, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; Michigan State Spartans quarterback Tyler O

Quarterbacks

QB, Last Week: C

C

Can the 2016 season be over yet? While there are many more glaring issues on both sides of the ball, the uncertainty at quarterback has been a nightmare. It didn’t seem as bad when Brian Lewerke was still healthy and an option at quarterback, but now that Tyler O’Connor has struggled mightily and Damion Terry is showing why he hasn’t been named the starter this year, the Spartans are in desperation mode.

Everyone is praying that the coaching staff leaves the redshirt on freshman Messiah deWeaver at this point. Burning a redshirt in the final three games of the season would be silly and it would waste an entire extra year they could have with him.

However, O’Connor suffered a head injury against Illinois on a quarterback sneak in the fourth quarter and he finished the day with 265 passing yards on 23-of-35 completions. He didn’t look great nor did he reach the end zone, but he gave the Spartans a chance to win. Not turning it over is all you can really hope for from O’Connor.

Terry took over shortly after and led the Spartans on a touchdown drive, hitting Shelton in the back of the end zone to take a 27-24 lead late. He did follow that up with a game-sealing no-yard gain on 4th-and-3 in the red zone. Not a heads up play at all.

Next season will be better, I promise.

Oct 29, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans place kicker Michael Geiger (4) kicks the extra point out of the hold of wide receiver Matt Macksood (86) during the first quarter of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

ST, Last Week: C+

B+

It’s hard to hate on this unit this week. Actually, this may have been the best unit on the field the entire game. Can you believe that the special teams were the major bright spot for the Spartans on Saturday in Champaign? Neither can I.

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It has been an otherwise rough and turbulent year for Mark Snyder’s special teams. The field goal unit has been inconsistent, the punt team has also been up and down and Kevin Cronin has kicked the ball out of bounds on kickoffs more times than he’d like to admit.

On Saturday, Jake Hartbarger looked like a solid punter and he gets knocked far too much even though he’s a pretty consistent player. The coverage was solid as no punt returns were allowed on four boots down the field.

The kickoff unit didn’t allow a big return all day as Foster’s 24-yard take back was the longest against the Spartans and Cronin even recorded a couple of touchbacks and didn’t kick the ball out of bounds.

The top performer of the day had to be Michael Geiger. The senior kicker has been shaky all season long, but was the source of nearly half the Spartans’ points against Illinois. He made all four of his field goals and an extra point as well.

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