I was at the game today in East Lansing. While I was obviously disappointed that we didn't steal the game, I walked out of the stadium pretty satisfied with the performance. While it's fresh, I wanted to commit some observations to paper.
1. It is hard to convey how close the game wasn't.
I take my hat off to Dantonio and Co. for their game plan. State absolutely dominated this game. Their 130 yard drive was an impressive display of consistency notwithstanding their efforts to self-destruct. Other than a relatively ineffective running game (I'm excluding QB scrambles), MSU played extremely well on both sides of the ball. The only thing I would pretty furious about if I was a State fan was Dantonio's decision to sub in Nichols at different points in otherwise successful drives. He was far less effective than Cousins. I have seen reporting on ESPN that Cousins was banged up, and that may explain the 4th quarter, but there were several moments in the first half where Nichols came in and absolutely killed an otherwise solid drive.
2. Paradoxically, I was pretty thrilled with the defense.
Obviously, the defense gave up a lot of yards today. But today is the day when I became a true Greg Robinson believer. Our defense is seriously lacking in athletic talent. But it seemed that GERG was using the linebackers to help out in coverage in a way that help band-aid our secondary's woes. In addition, JT Floyd looked not horrible today. There was an obvious cost to the way they deployed the linebackers -- no back up containment when the defensive line broke down in the middle. But at the end of the first half, I looked up at the scoreboard and said "Hat's off to Greg Robinson." He had a great gameplan that worked well. And, as per usual, he made great adjustments in the second half. I thought the defense delivered today in every way it is reasonable to expect.
3. It took us awhile to adjust to our inability to run.
State's linebackers did a great job on the run game and were clearly part of a comprehensive scheme to shut down the read option. It was impressive. RichRod adjusted well in my view, and began passing, but we were seriously hampered by drops in the first half. Koger drops a ball -- I think "Hey, he's a tight end and having those guys running full speed down the field is tough." Kelvin Grady, though, is starting to get on my nerves. From where I sit, that guy drops more than he catches. With the substantial improvement of Martavious Odoms, I'd like to see more Number 9 and less Kel. Grady.
4. I am concerned about playcalling.
Complaining about play calling is obviously an age-old Michigan meme. I have been listening to people bitch about Bo's playcalling since I was eight years old. However, I feel like our playcalling today had a "let's try this; ok, let's try this" feel to it. I didn't feel like we had a philosophy that was behind our playcalling. I think the best evidence of this is when they stuck Denard Robinson in in the 3rd Quarter with Michigan's ball at the 20. We very much needed to get untracked and drive the ball at that point. We really hadn't all day. I love Denard and see the upside, but he's not the type to engineer a lengthy drive, especially because he's still learning much of the playbook. I had a distinct feel that Rodriguez was grasping at straws and was kind of hoping Denard might do something amazing and bail us out. That's obviously not a ridiculous hope, but MSU's defense is far from overwhelming, and there was real reason to think each time we got the ball that we were about to get untracked. The Denard series was a mistake.
At this point, we have to discuss the fake punt. There was a part of me that was getting concerned enough that I thought about just lining up and going for it. Then my brain said "Yeah, right. Even if it works, you still have 80 yards to go. Cost-benefit doesn't work out." And then I watched in confusion as Zoltan started running and thought "Why are we rugby punting?" And then I thought "Holy God, we just faked a punt on our 15 yard line." I love RichRod. I do. But it is absolutely inexcusable to make this call in a close game. It demonstrated a frustration and lack of discipline on his part that he simply cannot afford to have. I viewed that playcall as an example of a head coach panicking simply because his normally magic touch wasn't working.
In general, for three quarters, I genuinely felt like we had no flow to our play call. Each drive felt like everything had to go right in order for the drive to succeed -- you felt like there was no margin. Dropped ball? Dead drive. Sack? Dead drive. All the while, State was the complete opposite. No matter how bad their third and longs were (and God Almighty did they convert more third and longs than I have ever seen), you sensed that they had a chance to convert. I felt like we lacked that type of resilience.
5. God I love this team.
All of the foregoing being said, I saw the heart of a lion out there today. I absolutely LOVE the fact that with RichRod at the controls, this team is literally never out of a game. With limited exceptions over the years, Michigan simply is not a team that does well coming from behind. We have been built as a horse that gets the lead and then holds it. This team is different. These guys are punchers. With four minutes to go, I honestly felt like we had a chance. Obviously, a lot of things came together to make it happen, but I would have NEVER thought we were still in this game under Bo/Mo/Lo.
6. The State of Our Union is Strong.
Look at where these two programs are. MSU has three years under Dantonio. From where I sit, they look like a sailboat that is going in circles. I predict they end the season .500 or with a losing record. By contrast, in our second season under RichRod, our record is up, our recruiting is up, and you are really starting to see the possibilities.
It sucks losing to Sparty. I get that. But we absolutely stole two games already this season. We have two walks on playing defense. Our quarterback is a freshman. Our line is only OK at best, and that was before transfers. If we were going to lose today, this was a good way to lose. I am not deterred.