If you are coming here looking for rants, I might have a couple but I’m remarkably, I don’t know, accepting of yesterday’s insanity. Probably one of those grief stages. So fair warning (unless you are a referee in this game – for you, I’ll make an exception).
Best: A Broken Heart Mended
I was 13 when Kordell Stewart ripped UM’s heart out. For some reason I thought I was younger, but maybe that was just because I was a late convert to UM football in that respect. I cheered on UM because they crossed the family TV screen most Saturdays, but I was a Pistons (and, honestly, an NBA) fan at my core. I went to a couple games a year, voraciously read box scores each morning during the season, and consumed as much content as possible about the NBA. If I had any football fandom in my body, it was for Barry Sanders, tragically dragging the Lions along with his brilliance under a baggy dome.
College football was just a thing that was on, the white noise machine of fall Saturdays. I cheered UM because of their ubiquity and prominence locally. I cheered because of the uniforms, the pageantry during the Tournament of Roses before the Rose Bowl, and the fact that they always seemed to win. My dad had gone to UM but never wore that connection on his sleeve, and I was still a bit too young to care about academics and job prospects, the objective metrics that led me to attend UM. Hell, I’m not even sure when we got ESPN on cable (and chances are had I stumbled upon it, it wouldn’t have been football). No, my relationship with UM football was one of convenience and detachment, where I would cheer because UM was usually winning or losing in conventional manners, and I knew enough about the sport to accept that at face value.
Until that play. I still remember sitting with my dad on the coach in the living room, just watching it unfold. My Dad assumed the game was over; it was 70+ yards to the lip of the endzone, and while Stewart had a cannon this was an era before the internet, before on-the-field Statz and talking heads, before constant replays and trips to the video archives between timeouts, so there wasn’t much in the way of foreshadowing. You knew about the Flutie Miracle, The Miracle in the Meadowlands, and The Band on the Field between Cal and Stanford, but it always felt distant and unimaginable, moments of affliction that deeply wound the participants but are mostly macabre blips in everyone else’s memory. Those plays happened to them, not us.
So it felt almost like a fait accompli that UM would win the game after Colorado’s last-gasp attempt, with (I’m guessing) most in the stands wondering if Stewart would even be able to get the ball to the endzone. It seemed impossible to contemplate anything more. And then the ball sailed from his arm like a rocket, and you could tell even the camera man was caught a bit off guard. He just kept panning, panning, panning into the endzone, and then a bunch of limbs reached out like a preacher’s chorus praising the gods of football, and the ball caromed into the waiting arms of Michael F’ing Westbrook, and then it was over.
And at that moment, even though it took a couple of more years for me to fully realize it, I became a UM football fan. You can’t have your heart broken like that, to see your guys lose a game because of celestial forces and cold physics, and not have that feeling wiggle its way into your rib cage and never leave. From that day forward, I always made sure to check the box scores every Sunday morning, to track the AP polls, to know how the Wolverines did. I started to get annoyed with the 8-4 seasons, the seemingly annual underperformance, and then the ascendant ‘97 season hooked me forever. I was in the stands when Notre Dame nearly drove the field with no timeouts in 1999, unable to catch my breath. I watched them lose to Purdue and Northwestern in heartbreaking fashion in 2000, and then 2001 with the damn Clockgate against MSU. And when I graduated and moved away, I still followed the team, yelping uncontrollably after Braylonfest, losing my mind after the New Math game, and giggling myself silly when ND left Gallon all alone in 2011. The 2006 game against OSU, Horror, everything that transpired under RR and Hoke (including the heartbreaking 2009 loss to MSU), and now this game all fell on the other side of the ledger.
I know people want to frame this as a curse, some lingering bad juju from the clusterfuck hanging over the program since Bo died, but I don’t think that’s it. Every game, both in the micro level and in the macro sense, creates fans and keeps them there. And this element of fandom is a zero-sum game; for every breathtaking win there must be a heartbreaking loss, only the names and faces change. They come about organically, and sometimes the most fertile soil is littered with shitty outcomes. But you can’t root for something and be surprised when they don’t come out on top all the time, and while I’m going to try to frame this as a sign of good things to come, of a team that is growing into something special and a future that is brighter today than it was 2 months ago, that’s not going to take the sting away, and it shouldn’t. But you don’t win all those games without a couple of tough losses, and sometimes you’ve got to wade through some foul stuff in order to come out better on the other side.
Worst: Leave Blake Alone!
Objectively, that last play was terrible. It was a series of small disasters that snowballed into an improbably loss. It was a low-ish snap that O’Neill couldn’t get ahold of, resulting in the ball being bobbled. UM, knowing his tendency to run to the right before booting the ball, shifted the shield in that direction but left nobody on the back side to handle the 4 MSU rushers from that direction. Had there even been one blocker extra on that side, I wonder if MSU is able to get to Blake quite that quickly. Once the ball was snapped, the offensive line started running down the field to cover the punt even though it didn’t appear MSU had anyone returning it, leaving even fewer players back to hold up the rush. Then, in his attempt to at least get the ball off, O’Neill kicked the ball right into the arms of the MSU defender, who then stumbled his way to the endzone. As others have noted, O’Neill probably should have fallen on the ball and just given up the field position, since MSU still would have had time for maybe 1 or 2 more plays with about half the field to go. But in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to fault a kid for trying to make a play.
Ultimately, it was the play that cost UM the win, but it wasn’t because of any single player. It was just a bit if bad luck at the worst possible time. And while the vast majority of the fanbase responded positively toward O’Neill, it must be stated again that if you think calling for a kid to be deported or kicked off the team, or sending him Twitter-muscle shade, or anything else that prompted Jim Hackett to send a formal letter to the fans and students to lay off of O’Neill, well…
Best: Rationalize away Merrill
ST3’s always-excellent column touched on some of these points, but this was a game far closer than the yardage would lead you to believe. You skim the narrative being put forth by the MSU faithful today, the argument for why MSU won wasn’t because they got the flukiest f*ing play in recent memory but because UM got incredibly lucky because the MSU offense was unstoppable and MSU’s defense was demolishing UM’s attack.
Now, MSU’s passing game was pretty solid (328 yards, 8.4 ypa, 1:0 TD:INT) in aggregate, but Cook still completed less than 50% of his passes, and 74 of those yards came on a busted play to FB Trevon Pendleton. Yes that play happened, but it was also an extreme outlier that goosed the numbers a bit. Throw that out and you have far more pedestrian numbers (254 yards, 6.9 ypa), furthered buoyed by some questionable penalties that kept MSU drives going (the 12 men on the field penalty was correct; the extremely questionable Lewis holding call where the receiver fell into the official that wiped out a pick, the targeting atrocity on Bolden, and the personal foul on Henry for tackling a player before the whistle was blown all felt like missteps) and some great catches by Burbridge. Some fans will argue that Cook was let down by his other receivers (most notably Kings) due to some drops, but that’s the equivalent of arguing “the computer is cheating” whenever your game of Madden mirrors reality a bit and mediocre WRs drop balls. To Cook’s credit, though, he made some great throws in tight windows, and while I still wouldn’t trust him to run my NFL franchise, he played well enough against UM.
By comparison, I thought Rudock had a fine game. He played the game like a QB whose team had the lead for virtually the entire game and knew that the worst thing he could do was give MSU a short field with a bad throw. He completed 60% of his throws for around 6.7 ypa and kept the sheet clean, while lofting a couple of nice balls to both Darboh and Chesson to come back to for completions. In fact, 7 of his 15 completions were for 1st downs (to Cook’s credit, he had 13 for first downs as well, but he also threw the ball 14 more times than Rudock). He continues to struggle throwing the ball deep, jarring in this game due to MSU’s poor corner play, though at some point you have to wonder if there’s a bit Luis Mendoza in his main deep threat, Chesson, who has amazing speed but just has never seemed able to harness it properly as a receiver (obviously he’s had a bit more success on returns and designed runs). But as Brian and others have said, if this is the Rudock UM gets this season, they should win every game except OSU, and until the last 10 seconds, he did more than enough to get this team the win.
MSU never established the running game (yes they had injuries to the offensive line and Jack Allen was out, but MSU has struggled all year on the ground), with the top 3 backs averaged about 2.7 ypc, which was less than the 3.5 ypc picked up by Smith and Houma, the two leading rushers for UM. For the game, UM had more and better rushes than MSU, and that includes knocking off 15 yards for O’Neill’s final punt play. Michigan scored in all 5 of their red zone trips while MSU only scored on 2 of them, missing two FGs and turning the ball over on downs. In fact, MSU failed to convert 4th downs 4 times in this game, only one of which would be considered required (the seemingly last drive on 4th and 19). Hell, dad they lost this game, people would have questioned Dantonio’s decision to call a pretty obvious fake punt that was stopped and UM turned into a TD.
As for defensive dominance by MSU, that doesn’t ring all that true either. MSU scored on 3 of their 12 drives (I’m excluding the end of the half and the last blocked return), while UM scored on 5 of their 13. UM had 3 sacks for 29 yards, matching MSU, and while UM had two less TFLs, theirs resulted in more lost yardage than those by MSU (7 to 9 TFLs, but 37 yards compared to MSU’s 23). MSU had one more QB hit, but UM had 10 (!!) pass breakups, including 6 by Lewis. The teams had basically the same 3rd-down conversion rate (MSU was 3/12, UM 4/15), and UM converted more in the 2nd half (3/10) than MSU (1/6).
The reason MSU had so many more yards compared to UM had largely to do with special teams decidedly going in UM’s favor (along with MSU’s poor conversion rate), with O’Neill averaging 44.6 yards on 7 punts, highlighted by the field-shifting 80 yarder in the first quarter, and pining MSU inside their own 20 two more times. By comparison, MSU averaged 37 yards on 5 punts, including one touchback. And as for returning said kicks, UM pantsed MSU mercilessly, with Peppers and Chesson picking up 154 yards on 7 returns while MSU snagged 54 yards on 4 returns. It all added up to UM starting on it’s own 38 while MSU had an average starting drive on their own 22 yard line. So yeah, that’s where your 150-ish difference in yardage mostly came from; UM didn’t need to go as far to score, so they didn’t.
MSU played well enough to win; UM suffered by not converting a couple more of those redzone trips into touchdowns, and that ultimately cost them at the end. But don’t for a second believe that MSU “deserved” to win this game because the people making the arguments fear basic math. It was a close game that went against UM due to the most freakish of plays possible, nothing more and nothing less.
Meh: Offensive Line Expectations Ticked Down
Yes this is MSU, and yes they again appeared to have a jump on a number of snaps (the 3 goal line runs capped off by Houma’s TD in the 3rd quarter all featured MSU players jumping the snap successfully), but I thought the offensive line did struggle at the point of attack, especially in the running game. MSU’s defensive line is the obvious strength of their unit, and it played well, consistently getting pressure and clogging up the running lanes. Thomas, who I still think is more a uniform stuffer than an elite talent, was second on the team with 7 tackles and held the edge well when UM (illogically) attacked it. I’m sure there were bad cuts by Smith that led to some stops, but like in the Utah game, you can see the deficiencies that submarine the rushing attack against elite defensive lines. Luckily, there aren’t a huge number of those lines left on the schedule, with OSU seemingly being the only sure bet to reproduce this level of disruption.
As for passing downs, it’s harder to tell because Rudock seemed willing to take a couple of sacks instead of throwing the ball downfield. Calhoun was consistently getting pressure and MSU got a couple free runs from their LBs, but it wasn’t the demolition we’ve seen in years past. Rudock appears to have all of his ribs and soul intact, which is a marked improvement for UM signal callers in this rivalry. And as noted above, the passing game was reasonably efficient even though the screen game, which might have loosened up the pressure a bit, was lacking. Overall, it felt like a decent performance by an average line but perhaps not the step forward fans had hoped for coming into the game. At the same time, it wasn’t a huge setback, it was just a reality check that this year’s rushing attack won’t approach the best units under Harbaugh’s various regimes.
Best: Jourdan MF Lewis
Nothing was more entertaining than seeing MSU fans complain about Lewis “mugging” Burbridge throughout the game on his way to 6 pass breakups and a pretty decent effort against MSU’s sole real passing threat. Lewis, of course, is just playing the same type of physical, grabby defense MSU introduced to the conference some years back, just perhaps at a better level than either Waynes or Dennard every did. Being a shutdown corner doesn’t necessarily mean that the guy you cover never catches a ball, especially when the opponent doggedly targets him because they literally had no other competent options (Burbridge was targeted 19 times in this game).
Instead, it means making it as difficult as possible for the offense to consistently complete passes to your side and limiting the damage when they do, and Lewis did that in spades. Even though Burbirdge finished with 9 catches for 132 yards, he only had 3 catches after halftime, and at least two of them were just great plays by him despite great coverage by Lewis. Lewis was also the victim of a pick play in the 2nd quarter (I believe) that Brandstatter called out immediately when it happened. Overall, he played like the All-American he’s being touted as and performed well in a tough matchup against a good receiver.
Best: Defensive Line Expectations Ticked Up
I know MSU had some injuries on the line, but I thought the defensive line, in particular Wormley and Henry, were great in this game. The front 4 recorded 3 sacks, held MSU’s rushing attack in check, got consistent pressure on Cook even when the Spartans left extra blockers in, and generally played like the dominating unit they’ve seen this whole year. They were also active in the passing lanes, with both Wormley and Henry recording pass breakups as well. I await Glasgow’s score in the UFR, but he seemed to hold up decently against a solid MSU interior, and both Jenkins-Stone and Hurst had some nice TFLs in there as well.
Will OSU give them problems? Probably, but even then I’m not sure we’re going to see Elliott plowing past them like he has against most other units. This remains a terrifyingly-good unit, and one that you hope will largely return next year to go along with the return of Mone and (fingers crossed) some high-end defensive tackle recruits. I’m certainly intrigued about next year under this coaching staff.
Best: Peppers Army Knife
Peppers was deployed everywhere possible in this game, and he excelled at all of them. He flipped the field with some great punt returns, had a great 28-yard pass/run play to set up a TD, and did well the couple of times MSU challenged him. He’s obviously still not a finished product, but the strides he’s made in these six games definitely give some credence to the “Woodson” comparisons that seemed a little far-fetched at the start of the year.
Worstest: These F*ing Guys
By the time they went to the review booth for the third time on UM’s goal line run, you could hear the announcers lose their patience (and for the record, I could understand the argument that Houma’s momentum was stopped, but he played to the whistle, which allowed him to score). And even at that point, the refs had a handful more dubious calls to make (Henry’s drive-extending PF, Jake Butt’s probably-a-catch that would have kept a late UM drive alive, Shelton’s “two guys are saying he’s out, but let’s trust the idiots in the booth” catch along the sidelines). The Bolden ejection was terrible in real-time and looked even worse on the numerous replays, as the refs initially tried to frame it as Morgan head-hunting when in fact Cook baseball slid in, then compounded the error by ignoring Conklin clearly throwing Bolden down on top of him. It was a terrible call, an inexcusable call, and yet not all that surprising given how the season has gone in terms of referee miscues.
I understand that being a referee is a thankless job; jagoffs like me freak out every time you screw up and don’t recognize when you get it right. But at the same time, you can’t make a series of illogical calls throughout a game and just chalk it up to “human error” and whatnot when you ALSO try to correct every possible call using video replay. In a game like this between two evenly-matched teams, one team losing its leading tackler due to a dubious call while the other received a fifth of their first downs by penalties is insane, especially when neither team is particularly known for being penalty-prone. And the thing is, this isn’t a Kings-Lakers situation where there might have been actual bias involved; it was just a series of terrible calls without reprieve. And as grown-ass adults who are tasked with calling a game as well as possible, this officiating crew failed, and it failed hard. It didn’t cost UM the game; that’s a fool’s argument to make, especially given how the final play turned out. But it doesn’t make the clown show we all watched any more palpable.
Best: A Week Off
On the one hand it sucks that UM is going to have to wait 2 weeks to wash the taste of this loss from their mouths, but on the other hand it should mitigate any hangover that could linger against the Gophers. UM played like the top-15 team they have shown thus far, and while they certainly shouldn’t have been in any national title talk, they looked a hell of a lot closer to MSU than they had coming into the year. That’s progress I’ll take.
I’m not sure about next week. I might do a mid-season recap, take a break, or something in between. But in a blink of an eye, there are only 5 more games left on the schedule, with the bowl game being the 6th. And I’m going to try to enjoy the last couple weeks as best as possible.