EAST LANSING, Mich. — If Michigan State were 4-0 — or even 3-1 — heading into its game with BYU, there probably wouldn’t be too many complaints about the play of fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler O’Connor.
Before the Spartans’ shocking 24-21 overtime loss at Indiana, O’Connor had been ranked among the top-20 most efficient passers in all of college football — and that was true even after a 30-6 home loss the previous Saturday to Wisconsin.
But the Spartans aren’t 4-0 or 3-1 — they’re 2-2, unranked and holding onto hopes of a respectable eight- or nine-win finish to the season.
And right now, O’Connor — who has thrown for 918 yards, eight touchdowns and five picks — has become a popular target for critics. He hasn’t been spectacular through the first four games, true enough. But he hasn’t gotten much support, either.
The losses of offensive linemen Jack Conklin and Jack Allen have all but crippled the offensive line. Left tackle David Beedle has recently struggled, said Spartans coach Mark Dantonio.
Receivers haven’t lived up to their billing.
Come to think of it, Dantonio said the defense has experienced a bit of lag thus far as well — and it’ll be without linebackers Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke and tackles Raequan Williams and Malik McDowell — who has to sit out the first half due to an ejection vs. Indiana — this Saturday against the equally hungry and unpredictable Cougars, who’ve won two games by two points and lost three by a combined seven points.
This year, it’s almost as if roles have been reversed. In the past, the defense carried the weight — the offense simply had to be consistent. This year, the defense hasn’t proven capable of leading the way — leaving the majority of the work in the hands of the offense and its quarterback.
Bottom line for a somewhat successful season? O’Connor has to play at or above original expectations. He’s Dantonio’s best option at this point. There won’t be a change at quarterback any time soon.
On Tuesday, the following passing chart was mentioned to Dantonio, who was asked to evaluate the 27.3 percent completion rate of deep balls down the left side and the 25 percent completion rate of deep throws down the middle.
“First of all, your chart doesn’t show pressure and your chart doesn’t show dropped balls, either,” Dantonio quickly replied. “So, you know, it’s a little bit more than just putting it down on a piece of paper.”
Technically, the above chart does include pressure numbers. But those weren’t mentioned during the question. But those are numbers based on observation.Caught or not caught. Only O’Connor knows the true level of pressure he’s endured. Only he knows the true ability of his wideouts. The chart doesn’t account for pressure due to poor blocking or self-induced pressure on the part of O’Connor (or his receivers).
So yeah, charts are charts, and they don’t always consider the human element.
Michigan State needs another consistent deep threat. While talented, Monty Madaris can’t go solo in that regard. Despite just four catches for 51 yards and a touchdown, and the fact that he missed the Notre Dame and Wisconsin games, Felton Davis could be an option for the Spartans.
“We have very high expectations for Felton,” said Dantonio, noting Davis’ recovery from an undisclosed injury. “And so he’s got to get back involved to a high degree, and there are plans for him to do that.”
Some type of spark. Anything. And not just from Davis, either. Dantonio wants to see more from highly touted true freshmen Donnie Corley and Justin Layne. Corley has played at receiver in all four games. Layne, who’s available for special teams, could get involved.
“We’ve got some young wide receivers,” Dantonio said. “They’ve got to run their routes at the correct depth — or, for that matter, run a route when a route’s supposed to be run. So those types of things occur as well.
“You can’t really place the blame on one particular person. It needs to be sort of spread around. And relative to coaching, too. So that’s how I’m looking at it.”
On Saturday, O’Connor led a game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter– the type of drive that would have prompted all types of praise under normal conditions. Instead, an overtime loss overshadowed the 13-play, 72-yard march that milked 4:27 from the clock.
The Spartans scored against Notre Dame. O’Connor made that possible. They didn’t score against Wisconsin, but due to poor protection, O’Connor — who was hammered at every turn — had little time to make anything happen. L.J. Scott’s fumble certainly didn’t help matters, either. Dantonio acknowledged an overall collapse versus the Badgers.
But the loss to the Hoosiers? Not even close to being O’Connor’s fault.
“If you look at this past game, again, penalties took us out of three potential scoring opportunities. So as difficult as that sounds… and then one turnover as well,” said Dantonio, referencing a 4-for-15 showing on third down and 11 penalties for 98 yards.
“As difficult as that sounds, that’s what happened. But I thought that when you look at what we had to do at the end of that football game, drive down to tie the football game — I thought it was a good drive. I thought it was well-engineered. There were some big plays in it. We had other opportunities in the game — we had (an 86-yard) touchdown pass (to R.J. Shelton).
We had another opportunity for a big play… or two.”