Michigan State offense looks to get back to productive ways, avoid 'death by inches'

© The Detroit News

EAST LANSING, Mich. — When Mark Dantonio orchestrated one of his best seasons at Michigan State, he used the mantra "find the inches."

That was back in 2013 when Michigan State was coming off a 2012 season where it lost five games by a total of 13 points. The inches were the difference, Dantonio explained, in why the Spartans struggled to reach .500 as opposed to contending for a Big Ten title.

It worked as Michigan State lost once in 2013 on its way to a conference championship and a win in the Rose Bowl.

Roughly eight years later, current Michigan State coach Mel Tucker is lamenting those very inches.

For this Spartans team, it was about an offense that suddenly lost its way last week. After averaging 520 yards a game through the first three weeks, Michigan State failed to pick up a second-half first down against Nebraska and turned to defense and special teams to pull out the victory.

"When you look at some of things that we didn't do where we had a lack of productivity in areas, it's basically death by inches, is what I call it," Tucker said this week. "Death by inches, which means it's maybe one guy on one play or one technique on one play that prevents us from being successful on that particular play. That's attention to detail and that's doing simple better and really that's where our focus is. We're embracing the grind of preparation knowing that Western Kentucky is a very, very strong football team."

Western Kentucky (1-2) is a good offensive football team, but the Hilltoppers aren't great on defense, which should allow the Spartans plenty of opportunity to fix what suddenly went wrong in the second half against Nebraska, a half in which No. 17 Michigan State managed just 14 total yards and went three-and-out five times. Its only first down after halftime came during the overtime period.

That all came after a first half that was OK, but far from efficient. The Spartans moved inside the Huskers 30-yard line five times but came away with only one touchdown while settling for two field goals, turning it over on downs once and botching a third field-goal attempt.

"I thought the first (half) I actually played decently well," quarterback Payton Thorne said. "I had a couple bad decisions in the first half that I wish I could have back, but we moved the ball, I thought, decently well. We got in the red zone and our issue there was just we didn't put it in the end zone. We settled for two field goals I believe in the first half, so we finish those and it's a completely different feeling about the game. It's a different game when you score seven instead of three.

"In the second half I just didn't execute well enough and that's just what it comes down to, doing the right things and getting the ball into our guys' hands and then let them go make plays. I knew that I missed a few throws and I didn't play well enough in the second half."

Thorne was just 2-for-8 passing in the second half, clearly not good enough to get the offense moving. But it was hardly all on him.

The running game that had been so effective through three weeks, averaging better than 263 yards a game, managed only 71 yards with Kenneth Walker III being limited to 61 yards on 19 carries as the Cornhuskers made it clear their No. 1 goal was to limit the nation's leading rusher.

Still, there were plays to be made, but the small mistakes Tucker referenced kept the offense from taking off.

"We were driving it down but you've got to punch it in," tight end Connor Heyward said. "Obviously you saw when we weren't even able to kick the field goal that one time, but we made up for it. But there were definitely times on film where we saw, even on the one where we ran the option and we pitched it to Ken. If we just climbed to the backer — it was the backer on the backside who was able to make the play — and I think Ken would still be running right now.

"There were a lot of plays like that. It was just one guy, but hats off to Nebraska. That's in the past but they had a stout defense and they were very fundamentally sound."

Getting it back this week will be critical for Michigan State (4-0, 2-0 Big Ten) as it faces a Western Kentucky team that pushed Indiana to the limit last week. After that, it's back-to-back road games with Rutgers and Indiana before an off week and then the annual showdown with Michigan.

So, being humbled a bit on offense while still winning might not have been the worst thing that could have happened.

"I just commend our defense," Heyward said. "Sometimes they're going to have to lean on us and sometimes we'll have to lean on them. Our defense went out there and they played well, they made stops when they had to.

"I saw an interview where (safety Xavier Henderson) said that they should have been off (the field) on third downs, but we shouldn't have had them on the field as long. But it's the game of football. Stuff is going to happen and you've just got to be able to keep chopping and keep on going."

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Western Kentucky at No. 17 Michigan State

— Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

— Records: Western Kentucky 1-2; Michigan State 4-0, 2-0 Big Ten

— Line: Spartans by 10 1/2