EAST LANSING, Mich. — Miscommunication wasn't the reason IU lost 17-9 to No. 18 Michigan State on Saturday afternoon, but it put the Hoosiers in a position to fail.
With less than eight minutes left in the game, the Hoosiers led 9-3 and were in position to retain the Old Brass Spittoon.
Senior linebacker Chris Covington had just sacked Michigan State sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke to force a 3rd and 19 for the Spartans at midfield.
Then, IU's defense messed up its signals.
The secondary played one coverage type. The linebackers played another. The result was a 16-yard pass completion on a crossing route from Lewerke to freshman wide receiver Cody White.
"I think that's the one we had the miscommunication on," senior linebacker Tegray Scales said. "I really couldn't tell you what I seen because I was playing totally different than what the defensive call was."
A short pass on the resulting 4th and 3 gave the Spartans a first down. Three plays later, Lewerke found junior wide receiver Felton Davis III open in the corner of the end zone for the game's first touchdown.
Freshman kicker Matt Coghlin made the extra point to give the Spartans their first lead of the game at 10-9. It was a lead they wouldn't surrender.
IU ran just nine more offensive plays for a combined 17 yards after trailing for the first time.
"We had our chance, and we let them off the hook," IU Coach Tom Allen said. "You've got to finish football games out."
The Hoosier offense had trouble moving the football long before then.
IU had only 119 total yards and five first downs in the first half. Freshman quarterback Peyton Ramsey built an early rapport with junior wide receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr., but as has been the case in recent weeks, the targets to Cobbs went away as the game progressed.
The Hoosiers didn't have a drive longer than six plays in the first half.
Their only score came via a 33-yard field goal by senior kicker Griffin Oakes, after a fumble was forced by senior safety Tony Fields and recovered by junior safety Jonathan Crawford deep in Michigan State territory.
The Spartan offense was equally poor in the first half. Allen's defense caused havoc for Lewerke and rendered the Michigan State aerial attack ineffective for most of the game.
Covington played a huge role for IU with 11 tackles and a sack in the loss.
"We just didn't finish," Covington said. "We just learn from it. Make the adjustments in practice and just keep going."
A 10-play, 68-yard drive midway through the second quarter needed the Spartans their only points before halftime via a 23-yard field goal.
By comparison, the scoring came in bunches in the second half.
After beginning with a three-and-out, IU responded with consecutive drives of 60-plus yards, but neither drive reached the Michigan State end zone.
IU's play calling became noticeably more conservative as it approached the Spartan end zone on each drive.
Field goals of 44 and 20 yards were converted by Oakes to push the IU lead to 9-3.
"I don't mind playing that way," Allen said. "You've got to score touchdowns. We know that and didn't do it. We just need a touchdown there. Field goals are good to a point, but not that point. So we've got to score touchdowns."
The lead was far from safe, especially given IU's history in close games against ranked conference opponents. Similar to those prior close IU losses, it was late-game execution that did the Hoosiers in.
IU intentionally allowed Michigan State junior running back L.J. Scott to score with under two minutes remaining in order to get the ball back. But the damage was done by then.
Few answers were provided about IU's offensive consistency down the stretch, but something that remained clear was IU's continued lack of a breakthrough win.
"That 3rd and 19, golly, I don't like the call that I made, so that's on me," Allen said. "That’s the one that’s really gonna bother me.”
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