EAST LANSING – Forget competing for a national championship. Mel Tucker’s Michigan State football team hit perhaps the lowest point of his three-year tenure Saturday.
By the end of the first quarter. And it kept getting worse for the Spartans against Minnesota, on defense and offense.
The Gophers overpowered No. 21 MSU from the outset and dominated in the trenches all afternoon en route to a 34-7 victory at Spartan Stadium.
Quarterback Payton Thorne committed three turnovers: two interceptions and a red-zone fumble. The Spartans managed just 240 yards on offense (75 of those on a final touchdown drive) despite the return of wide receiver Jayden Reed, and they gave up 508 on defense — 268 through the air and 240 on the ground — as Jacob Slade and Jeff Pietrowski joined Xavier Henderson and Darius Snow as starters sidelined with injuries.
“After a game like this, there’s not really much to say,” Thorne said. “It feels terrible.”
3 QUESTIONS:Where does Michigan State go following back-to-back losses?
MSU (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) will likely fall out of the USA TODAY Sports/AFCA Coaches Poll this week before heading to face Maryland next Saturday (3:30 pm/FS1). The Spartans face a gauntlet over the next six weeks with that trip followed by visits from Ohio State and Wisconsin and road games at Michigan and Illinois.
Tucker during his postgame news conference said he already had a discussion with his coaching staff after the game, but he did not divulge much of his concerns. The third-year coach dodged most specific questions, saying he preferred to reserve judgment and criticism until after he reviewed the film.
But he knew one thing without watching a playback.
“You can’t win like that,” Tucker said. “I’m really not happy what I’m seeing. I don’t accept it. But as I look at our team and I see things unfolding, I do understand what our issues are.”
More of the same
The Spartans started as bad, if not worse, than they did a week ago in their 39-28 loss at Washington. Minnesota (4-0, 1-0) attacked MSU’s struggling secondary early and often, with sixth-year senior quarterback Tanner Morgan spreading the ball to open receivers throughout the first half and the Gophers using Mohamed Ibrahim and their running game to get big chunks. of time.
Morgan marched Minnesota 75 yards in 10 plays to open the game, using 5:10 and persistently picking on safety Angelo Grose and nickel back Justin White. The drive included an 18-yard throw from Morgan to tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford on third-and-8 that set up Ibrahim’s 2-yard touchdown run on the next play.
The Gophers held MSU to a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, with Thorne’s pass to Reed short of the sticks on third down, then went up two scores after another time-consuming drive.
This one took 5:01 and went 77 yards in nine plays, kept alive with a 15-yard scramble on third-and-13 by Morgan on which White slipped to allow a first down. The Minnesota quarterback attacked MSU cornerback Charles Brantley on the next play for a 23-yard touchdown pass that made it 14-0 Gophers with 2:07 left in the first quarter.
“The first quarter, they came out faster than us,” defensive end Jacoby Windmon said. “I believe that we’re better defense than we went out there and played like. We just gotta go back to work.”
Thorne and the Spartans went three-and-out again on their second possession, with the junior getting dropped for an 8-yard sack to cap it. Minnesota continued to gnaw another 6-plus minutes on its next drive, capped by a 26-yard field goal by Matthew Trickett that made it 17-0 less than 5 minutes into the second quarter.
Morgan finished the game 23-for-26 for 268 yards and three touchdowns. Minnesota owned a dominating 42:30-17:30 advantage in possession time.
“We prepared for the run, but obviously we knew they could still throw the ball,” MSU safety Kendell Brooks said. “We weren’t surprised.”
BOO BIRDS:Michigan State football fans rain boos down in ugly beatdown vs. Minnesota
That 17-0 score held through halftime, and so did the Gophers’ defense in rendering MSU’s offense anemic.
Through the first quarter, Minnesota had a 169-1 edge in total yards, ran 21 plays to just six for the Spartans and held the ball for 11:40 of the 15-minute period. Morgan was 9-for-10 passing for 111 yards.
It didn’t get any better from there.
The Spartans started moving after the Gophers’ second-quarter field goal, with Thorne finally getting the offense moving some and picking up a pair of first downs. But he stared down receiver Keon Coleman on fourth-and-4 just over midfield and was picked off.
MSU had just 45 yards on 19 first-half plays and ran the ball nine times for 15 yards. The Gophers held a 20:58-9:01 edge in time of possession and posted 207 yards on 41 plays.
“We can’t be so casual, and I think that’s what the case was,” receiver Tre Mosley said. “At the end of the day, we were just too casual on the field on offense, defense and special teams. And we couldn’t get the job done.”
Coming out of halftime, Thorne again started moving the Spartans – like he did after the half in Seattle last week. Only this time, as Thorne tried to go around the left side on a first-and-goal run play, Thomas Rush stripped the ball and Justin Walley recovered deep in MSU territory.
Morgan responded by moving Minnesota 90 yards in 12 plays, hitting tight end Nick Kallerup for a 6-yard touchdown between miscommunication in coverage between safety Kendell Brooks and cornerback Charles Brantley. Morgan added another 4-yard touchdown pass to Jackson after Thorne’s second interception, thrown directly to defensive lineman Danny Striggow while trying to set up a screen pass.
The Gophers’ offense finished 10 for 12 on third down and held the Spartans to 2 for 8 on defense.
Thorne finished 17-for-24 for just 132 yards. MSU eventually abandoned the run with Jarek Broussard starting and getting six carries for 23 yards and Jalen Berger managing just four carries for 13 yards. Backup Noah Kim led a touchdown drive in the waning seconds to prevent Tucker’s second home shutout, firing a 27-yard scoring pass to Germie Bernard with 17 seconds left.
“We didn’t do enough with the ball tonight when we had it,” Thorne said. “We needed to do a better job on third down. Obviously, we weren’t good enough through the air. I don’t know what the stats were officially, but it doesn’t matter – we gotta get the ball in the end zone. It starts with me, and we all got to come together and move the ball down the field. And we didn’t do that.”
Contact Chris Solari:email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari.
Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.