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Fumbles still holding Spartans back with Penn State looming

FILE – In this Sept. 23, 2017, file photo, Michigan State’s LJ Scott tries unsuccessfully to recover his fumble in the end zone during the second quarter against Notre Dame in an NCAA college football game in East Lansing, Mich. The fumbling problems that plagued the Spartans early this season haven’t really gone away, and they finally lost a Big Ten game last weekend at Northwestern. (AP Photo/Al Goldis, File)

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio shook his head slightly when asked about his team’s fumbling — one of the few significant disappointments in an encouraging season in East Lansing.

“I don’t have an answer for you. I can just tell you that it’s on everybody’s mind,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “We’ve got to hold onto the football. Collectively we’re working at it with drills and everything else.”

The 24th-ranked Spartans are averaging around three fumbles a game, and although they are sometimes able to recover the ball and keep possession, this has been a problem since the very first drive of the season. An early fumble turned out to be crucial in last weekend’s triple-overtime loss at Northwestern, and Michigan State can ill afford mistakes like that as it begins the toughest part of its schedule.

The Spartans (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten, No. 24 College Football Playoff) host No. 7 Penn State this weekend, and a matchup with Ohio State comes immediately after that.

Michigan State has been charged with 22 fumbles this season and lost 10 — and that doesn’t include the last play of the Northwestern game, when quarterback Brian Lewerke had the ball knocked loose, picked it up and threw a pass that was intercepted. Lewerke was not charged with a fumble in the official stats, but even without one on that play, he still has six on the season.

Running back LJ Scott has five, and running back Madre London and receiver Cody White have two each. Receivers Hunter Rison and Laress Nelson, tight end Matt Sokol and punter Jake Hartbarger have one each. Michigan State has been charged with three team fumbles.

The first possession of the season ended when Scott fumbled near the Bowling Green goal line in Michigan State’s opener . He fumbled again near the end zone three weeks later against Notre Dame . The Spartans led 7-0 last weekend and were in the red zone when Scott fumbled. Michigan State recovered that one, only for White to lose a fumble on the next play.

After wasting that early chance to take control, Michigan State went on to lose 39-31 to Northwestern.

“We just, I guess, just got to be a little bit smarter,” said White, who aside from his two fumbles had a great game with nine catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns. “Just know that people are going to start ripping at the ball, knowing that we’ve had a problem fumbling the ball. It’s just got to get fixed.”

The last time Michigan State fumbled 20 times in a whole season was in 2012, and the Spartans have already surpassed that with several games remaining. The next opponent makes this issue even more of a concern. Penn State (7-1, 4-1, No. 7 CFP) is by far the Big Ten’s leader in turnover margin at plus-14. The Nittany Lions have taken away a league-high 11 fumbles and lost only one.

“I assure you, it’s being stressed and it’s a point of emphasis and a point of frustration,” Dantonio said. “But the ball’s going to come out. Penn State is the best in the conference at takeaways right now. That traditionally has been our job or our role when we’ve won championships.”