Die By The Sword

Submitted by Brian on October 5th, 2009 at 10:57 AM

10/3/2009 – Michigan 20, Michigan State 26 (OT)  - 4-1, 1-1 Big Ten

greg-mathews-michigan-state-duck martavious-odoms-msu-interception

Tate Forcier had gotten away with three or four balls just like the one he chucked in the direction of a very, very covered Martavious Odoms on Michigan's final offensive play. In the first half, Koger bailed him out on a prayer of a deep ball that became Michigan's initial first down and led to a field goal. And Forcier had caused heart attacks twice on Michigan final drive. On the first play he "found" Hemingway conveniently located a foot behind a Spartan safety for a nine yard gain. On the play before the epic coverage bust that got Roy Roundtree open for the tying touchdown, he tossed a flapping duck into a cast of thousands. In retrospect—but only in retrospect—it was obvious that Michigan would die by the sword that brung them.

A third consecutive Forcier miracle would have been too much too compute. And this one would have offended the football gods for more reasons than "third consecutive game-ending drive to win or tie by freshman quarterback." In Michigan's comebacks against Notre Dame and Indiana you could point to factors hidden from the generic yardage statistics most people use to measure a team's worth: special teams and red-zone defense converted Michigan's yardage deficits into wins. This was not so much the case on Saturday.

Looking at the box score reveals an afternoon of vast offensive ineptitude. The only reason Michigan fans faced the prospect of a ninety-one-yard march in a driving rainstorm with three minutes and no timeouts with anything other that resignation is a testament to how quickly Forcier has grabbed hold of hearts and minds in Ann Arbor. I mean, look at this thing (Michigan is the first, ugly column):

  TOTAL NET YARDS  	        251  	417 
    Total Plays 	        60 	78 
    Average Gain Per Play 	4.2 	5.3 
  NET YARDS RUSHING 	        28 	197 
    Rushes 	                28 	49 
    Average Per Rush 	        1.0 	4.0 
  NET YARDS PASSING 	        223 	220 
    Completions-Attempts 	17-32 	20-29 
    Yards Per Pass Play 	7.0 	7.6 
    Times Sacked 	        3 	2 
    Yards Lost to Sacks 	33 	12 
    Had Intercepted 	        1 	2

Before Forcier's last-drive wizardry, Michigan had one excellent catch and run from Stonum, the aforementioned prayer to Koger, and 47 other yards total. (Michigan picked up 12 in overtime.) There was no indication anywhere that Michigan should be in the game, and they wouldn't have been but for the brilliant swashbuckling we've come to expect in five short games with Tate Forcier. Michigan's sword is a scimitar held  between the teeth as it swings on an unexplained rope into a ballroom. Sometimes they biff the landing and end up with a faceful of scimitar and cheeks in need of serious stitches.

This is the kind of thing that sees the inbox fill up with questions about whether Michigan should have gone for two. More on that later (quick answer: yes but not when you think). The important bit for this section is: that's Boise State thinking, and this was a game in which it was appropriate. Michigan richly deserved a loss to the point where fans were proposing taking a less than 50-50 shot at winning there and then, hoping to get one play right to steal a win and get out of town.

Michigan got outplayed. They showed how far they've got to go before they are back to being block-M Michigan, and yes it sucks that it happened at all and a bit worse that it happened against the yappiest team in No Accomplishments Land. It was going to happen at some point, and will probably happen again. The yardage margins are compelling at this point: Michigan's gotten by on smoke and swashbuckling so far, a team born to play a recurring role in Life on the Margins as long as they continue digging out from the talent and preparation crater that led to 3-9 and have a guy at quarterback that refuses to go down easy.


  • Pregame predictions here mostly bore fruit: Michigan State had a surprisingly tough day on the ground and an obviously easy one in the air when Michigan wasn't getting lots amounts of pressure (all three MSU turnovers were a direct result of that). Michigan's passing game was also good when people weren't dropping balls. But there were two huge exceptions: I didn't mention "oh by the way Kirk Cousins will run for 10 YPC"—in fact, I dissed his ability to make thing happen when he moved out of the pocket—and I didn't see State crushing Michigan's ground game for the second straight year. The first one can be explained by flukes and poor linebackers… the second… uh? That's one of the things you just don't know about until you go over the tape in minute detail, but I don't get it.
  • One possible explanation: Steve Sharik thinks Dantonio "gets the rivalry" to the point of manic obsession: "After watching MSU's D for their first 4 games and then today, it seems obvious that they spent almost all off-season and much of fall camp working on defending Michigan.  I don't know how else to explain how a so-so run defense, horrendous secondary and meh pass rush turned into the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens that suddenly." Michigan might be wise to have a package of stuff designed to combat this in the future; it was equally obvious last year that disproportionate amounts of effort had gone into preparing for Michigan. Congratulations, Spartans: you're 2-3.
  • It'll be interesting to see what happens against Iowa. Michigan gashes them, or even gets a decent day, and it's clear that State's mania is at another level and that Michigan's run game is okay for the rest of the year. Michigan gets shut down and it looks like Molk's injury is more devastating than anyone projected, the offensive line was getting by against teams short of talent, and things will rest more heavily on Forcier.
  • Defense was very strange. Outside of what might be the longest drive in the history of both programs (in terms of total yardage covered) it held Michigan State to 10 points in regulation and something like 250 yards. But, right: ceded 130 yard touchdown drive on which they had a 2nd and 25 and other instances of huge long yardage situations. That touchdown drive also made for a crazy first half in which Michigan got three drives. Still, the defensive line crushed State's conventional running game. State running backs averaged well under three yards a carry. That seems like progress even against a run game as weak as State's.
  • Not progress: linebackers. Jonas Mouton was almost wholly responsible for letting Kirk Cousins (who is KIRK COUSINS) outside of him for a 41(!) yard gain, and Ezeh and Mouton were the guys who let Cousins get from the eight to the one on third and goal, allowing State to punch it in on fourth down. We have to live with this all year.
  • Rodriguez said he didn't call for a fake on the ill-fated fake, and I assumed at the time that Zoltan was given the rollout punt/go for it option he picked up a couple first downs with last year. It was really, really not there, though, and he should have immediately punted it.
  • I hated the run-up to that. Would rather see Brandon Minor on some sort of power set than Forcier doing that off tackle thing, and it was fourth and an inch, and I would probably go for it there. QB sneak it, man.
  • Robinson's madden inability to adjust to the bubble screens was, uh, maddening. I'm at a loss to see how Michigan can't even throw it anymore but Michigan State can just line up in a twins set and have it open time after time. What happened to the defense we saw against Minnesota last year when Morgan Trent actually arrived before the ball on one?


Special mini-mailbag on this piece of PhD level game theory coaching moves:

Hi Brian,
Obviously we shouldn't have dropped back 12 yards to gain six inches or punted it away on successive 4ths and 1s, but the Romer go-for-it on fourth down angle has been pretty well covered. So my game theory comment is this: when you are down 14 and score a TD, you should go for two! 44% of 2pt conversions in last year's Big Ten were successful, so...
Possible outcomes:
44%: Make 2pt conv (44%), you win
25%: Miss 2pt conv (56%), then make 2 pt conv (44%), overtime
31%: Miss 2pt conv twice, you lose
So you can see you come out ahead, and you come out ahead with any conversion rate of at least 37%. (Not to mention the intangibles of tiring the defense for another snap or two, plus the fact that going for the throat would have to fire up the team.)
Might have made the difference Saturday. Thoughts?
Daniel Novinson

This didn't occur to me at the time, but: yes, Michigan should have gone for two after the Stonum touchdown. The scenario laid out above has occurred to a number other folk. They have proceeded to go into unnecessarily vast detail about it in various quasi-academic publications dedicated to the proposition that no decision in football should go unquestioned. Daniel above has it in its simplest form: when you're down two touchdowns late and you get one of them you should go for two and take a shot at winning in regulation early when you have another touchdown to make up for potential failures.

Should Michigan have gone for two on their final drive after having kicked on the Stonum TD? I don't think so. The rain was pounding at that point and Forcier was as gassed as I've ever seen a Michigan quarterback. The chances of success there are poorer than usual, I think. I mean, this happened two plays before:

((CAPTION)) Tate Forcier(5) drops the football in a dowpour at the end of the game as Michigan State beats Michigan, 26-20, in overtime at Spartan Stadium Saturday afternoon. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)2009.I'm not super confident in the offense getting one play right at this juncture. 



October 5th, 2009 at 11:18 AM ^

I agree that Tate was gassed, but I don't agree w/ arguments based on the fact that "we had the momentum" going into OT. It only appeared that way bc MSU shut the offense down in the 4Q. I think in this particular situation it would have been better to go for 2 than to allow MSU to regroup in OT.


October 5th, 2009 at 12:31 PM ^

I don't agree that they are the better team. I think they came to play and we didn't. If we had played the entire game like we did in the last 5 minutes, it would have been a blowout.

MI Expat NY

October 5th, 2009 at 11:22 AM ^

I made the same point to my dad on the phone yesterday. We are going to be in for a fight with them every year until we have far superior talent as long as Dantonio is still the coach, and not because Dantonio is the great coach the media would have you believe.

Dantonio is clearly a Tressel clone when it comes to rivalries (hatred for Michigan?). Both coach the entire season with an eye towards the one week Michigan appears on the schedule. I have no doubt that from the end of the MSU season until the Michigan game, Dantonio and staff scheme and practice to beat us. I'm not sure you can blame him for the strategy, as that's the only game that the MSU fan base cares about. But eventually, Dantonio will pay for this strategy. Just as Tressel doesn't seem to have any brilliant ideas when he goes up against a great team not named Michigan, MSU will never take the next step when you're constantly holding stuff back all to win one game. When our talent level returns to historic norms, and Dantonio is only beating us once every three or four times, he will be quickly shown the door.


October 5th, 2009 at 11:38 AM ^

part to that is that state fans don't see it. if dantonio would take every game as SERIOUS as he takes the michigan game they would be at least 3-2 or 4-1 right now. you could completely tell that state game planned for saturdays game. to me it looked like their D was going balls to the wall for 52 mins and then for some reason they called off the dogs for the last 8 mins.

also, i'm really tried of the argument that dantonio "gets the rivalry" and that rich rod doesn't. what is rich supposed to do? should he open up each and every one of his interviews of pressers with "i hate michigan state"?


October 5th, 2009 at 12:10 PM ^

I wonder more if it isn't just that MSU has one or two fringe-coaches whose only job is to gameplan all year for the Michigan game. I'm not so convinced that the team as a whole, or Dantonio, spend so much more time on this game than any others,. Although, who's to say that every team doesn't have a coach who does this for every game? I'm definitely not an expert and don't have the football knowledge of some of the coaches or other people on here so I could easily be wrong.

His Dudeness

October 5th, 2009 at 11:25 AM ^

"I hated the run-up to that. Would rather see Brandon Minor on some sort of power set than Forcier doing that off tackle thing, and it was fourth and an inch, and I would probably go for it there. QB sneak it, man."

Agree times eleventy billion. I didn't get it then and I sure as shit don't get it now.


October 5th, 2009 at 11:39 AM ^

Punting on that play when you have, what, 2 inches to go?, was the worst part of the whole game for me. This is a rivalry. You're Michigan playing against MSU. You man up and push 'em back. Since when do we play scared against Little Brother?!

I hated the call for the punt there and the ensuing disaster made me hate it even more. It was gutless - something I never thought we'd see under Rodriguez.


October 5th, 2009 at 1:12 PM ^

The series in question occurred in the middle of the 3rd quarter (not 4th) and we were only down 10-6 at the time.

Sure, it should be easy to pick up a couple inches, but that's just not the right call under those circumstances. The cost-benefit of going for it is too low at that point. Punt, play good defense, and live to see another possession.


October 5th, 2009 at 12:33 PM ^

Of all the plays/issues on Saturday, the read/roll/rugby punt bothers me the most. As a friend of mine put it, "Those are the types of calls that lose games." I don't care if it was a designed rn or not, why even put Zoltan in that position? Line up, punt, and play defense OR go for it with your 18-Wheeler Truck of a running back named Minor. Given the down, distance, field position, and circumstance, I just dont see the logic in even giving Zoltan the option.

In general I like the creativity that RRod brings, but this is a concern in my opinion.

Blue in Yarmouth

October 5th, 2009 at 12:45 PM ^

Please.....How concerned were you last year when he picked two or three of these up? He made a bad read. Forcier has made plenty as well, it isn't the end of the world and it most certainly didn't cost us the game (the fake punt didn't I mean). Had he picked it up no one would be crying about this now or wondering if RR's creativity is going to cost us another game. It's over and the played was made, we didn't pick it up and we lost the game. Let's move on to Iowa and take out our frustrations there instead of on RR, Zolton or any other wolverine.

Blue in Yarmouth

October 5th, 2009 at 1:02 PM ^

But once you change that one decision you change the rest of the game. Had we given them the ball back they would have still likely ended up with at least a field goal but would have taken even more time off the clock. We scored with only 2 seconds left to tie so those seconds would have easily been erased had we punted. Either way, it doesn't matter now.

matty blue

October 5th, 2009 at 1:38 PM ^

state had three possessions in the third quarter and gained a total of 82 yards. a 43-yard punt (mesko's average for the game) would have put them on their own 41. i don't think it's necessarily a given that they end up with three points either way.

as you say, it doesn't matter now...but at the time, i personally think a punt was the right decision.


October 5th, 2009 at 1:32 PM ^

I was not concerned last year because they were all run at times when we either took the other team by surprise, or had the field position to do it. We had neither of those against Sparty. You are certain it didn't cost us the game, and at the same time, you are certain they would have scored anyways. Must be nice. Had he picked it up I am sure people would have been happy, but still question the timing. To clarify, that play did not lose the game, but its the type of play that could.


October 5th, 2009 at 4:39 PM ^

The problem for me is that just as you said, Z ran the punt option to perfection 3 times last year and those tapes simply don't disappear when the season ends. Dantonio had it completely sniffed out. Furthermore, while Rodriguez claimed it was Zoltan's option, RR needs to make it clear that under no circumstances was this an appropriate time to run the fake - especially knowing Z's tendency to do so.


October 5th, 2009 at 11:35 AM ^

I hear what you are saying but the fact that Tate was gassed was one of the reasons I thought we should go for it. Line up in the I and run right between Schilling and Ortman by Minor with Grady lead blocking. The MSU D was gassed. We had all the emotion and momentum and I think those 4 guys get that ball in the endzone. Just my opinion, but man I would have liked to see them try.


October 6th, 2009 at 10:36 AM ^

First, I do not think we ever ran out of the power I with a lead blocker. We kept running our zone read or qb keeper and that got stuffed, but we never tested Minor rage, in my opinion.

Second, we just had two long drives on them where we didn't really use Minor or Grady. I felt like their D was tired and our two senior running backs were good to go. I feel like the desire would have gotten them those three yards, running behind our two best o-lineman (not named Molk)

Third, I felt like Tate was dead and he had given us all he could. I felt like we could steal one from them at that time if we just shoved it down their throats. I don't think they could have recovered from that td to stop us if we went right away. But I thought, correctly, that we were dead meat in OT. Tate was exhausted and the MSU offense was rested and ready. Tate had thrown a few ducks in that last stretch that should have been picked off, but we got lucky. Putting any more of it on his shoulders, or our defense was a mistake.

In the end, I felt our D and Tate got us to the point where we could put the game in the hands of our seniors on offense and end it right then and there. I think Rodriguez made the easy but ultimately wrong choice. If we had been stopped and lost by one in regulation, that would have sucked, but I think that was our best chance.

Last week I had an argument with cfaller96 about how Rodriguez would put the game in the hands of his offense and Lloyd wouldn't. I guess he was wrong after the 4th and inches and two point calls. I wish he had been right.


October 5th, 2009 at 11:36 AM ^

Brian concludes:

"We have to live with this all year."

Yes, we do have to live with Ezeh and Mouton all year but what's worse is we have to live with them next year too since neither Fitzgerald nor Demens seem to be able to make meaningful contributions. And there don't appear to be good options incoming.

All of which leads me to wonder, when are we ever going to see a real linebacker recruit? It seems the last time we got real linebackers was Foote and Hobson in '98. Mouton and Burgess were both 5 star safeties and neither was great at LB. Gold was a RB. Woodley and B. Graham were LB recruits but obviously turned into great DEs at this level. Finally, Harris and Manning were 2 or 3 stars that just happened to work out really well for us -- the kind of expectation people hoped for Ezeh.

I'd like to think Roh could move back to full time linebacking; was anyone else impressed that he was able to follow a TE into the endzone and break up a pass? And yet, in the absence of Graham next year, Roh's going to have to be used up front.

These three DEs we've got coming in, Wilkins, Paskorz and Kinard are all Roh types themselves; not one actual LB on the commitment list.

I'm trying to envision what GERG will try to do next year with OE and JM not good and having to replace Graham (Lalota maybe?). Because of these two factors, I don't see the defense being any better next year. Anybody want to give me some hope?


October 5th, 2009 at 12:51 PM ^

Some LBs (and players in general) take till their final year to look like they know what they're doing and be a real asset. S.Brown, V.Hobson, B.Harrison come to mind as players who showed potential, but also made many errors, until stepping up as seniors. There's hope for the same for Mouton and Ezeh.

The other hope is that the coaches figure out the players limitations and utilize them more effectively. Maybe Mouton becomes a guy who blitzes more often.

I'd keep Roh where he is, just because his versatility and playmaking seem to be a perfect fit for what they want from the position. The position shift that makes more sense is RVB to Graham's DE spot with Martin/Campbell/Sagesse/Banks rotating at the DT/NT spots. Lalota and maybe one of next years freshman backing up RVB.

For me, a bigger concern is Stevie Brown's replacement. It may indeed be Kovacs. While I think some of this years LBs (Jones, Bell, Hawthorne) will be ready by 2011, 2010 seems early. The same goes for the other LBs who haven't shown much (Fitzgerald, Smith, Herron, etc.)

And of course if Warren goes pro, CB will be the biggest question.


October 5th, 2009 at 2:01 PM ^

Mat, you said "Some LBs (and players in general) take till their final year to look like they know what they're doing and be a real asset."

I'll argue the opposite -- players with tons of prior starts who still couldn't get it done in their fourth year: Carl Diggs, Chris Graham, Pat Massey. And I don't think in their cases (or Ezeh's) that they "showed potential and made many errors". I actually think none of the above players ever showed much potential and, it's not so much their errors, but just how generally challenged they were/have been on the field. Yes, Obi and Jonas can each do a few things well and I like both of them from what I've seen as competitors, but yeesh!


October 5th, 2009 at 6:21 PM ^

There are just as many (or more) counter-examples of guys who never got it. You asked for some hope, so thats what I tried to give. I'm saying it COULD happen, not it WILL.

I still think Mouton can "get it". Its hard to read effort, but Mouton seems to be less than aggressive on some plays. If he realizes his NFL aspirations are on the line he may put everything together. Ezeh...I'm less sure about.


October 5th, 2009 at 11:48 AM ^

Just the way I like my post loss columns.

Seriously, I have wanted to be angry about this loss, mostly because the worst part about losing to Michigan State is the fact that you were in a University of Michigan version of the Kobayashi Maru, and now, for another year, we have to hear about well, I won't rehash.

But the thing is, deserving victory is such a weird thing, and yet, you almost want it. Winning is winning, and winning with honor is more important, but deserving victory, feeling like you earned it, is almost as important as anything else. Otherwise, you know, in your heart, that it will come back to haunt you somewhere, perhaps when you least expect it. This does not mean that I would not have enjoyed if Michigan had pulled this one out, it just simply means I have a hard time being angry that they didn't.


October 5th, 2009 at 12:05 PM ^

During the tying drive I felt like we were playing w/ house money. We had no business being in a position to force OT/win that it was hard to get upset at the outcome. That said, it is always extremely annoying to lose to MSU, even moreso when we could have forced a meltdown of epic proportions w/ a win.


October 5th, 2009 at 11:51 AM ^

I'm not super confident in the offense getting one play right at this juncture.

I have even less confidence in the offense, then the defense, getting several plays right in OT. We know now that it stopped raining before OT, but that is not a given. It is the rain.

spam and beans

October 5th, 2009 at 12:19 PM ^

"I'll love you forever, for now."
Sometimes a team falls in love with fourth quarter comebacks. They are fun to watch, and an absolute blast to play in. The problem comes when one starts to think that 4th quarters are as equally enthralled with the relationship.
A team can't decide to just turn the switch on and expect to win all the time. (red wings last year). Sure, it worked against Indiana, but an improved Indiana is still just Indiana.
The comeback against Notre Dame was great, but Michigan played with intensity the whole game. Can't say that about the past two games.
Michigan, you need to dump 4th Quarter Comeback. She is a fickle dame, and is no good for us. However, I hear that Whole Game Domination is available. She is hot, and she puts out.

witless chum

October 5th, 2009 at 12:27 PM ^

"# One possible explanation: Steve Sharik thinks Dantonio "gets the rivalry" to the point of manic obsession: "After watching MSU's D for their first 4 games and then today, it seems obvious that they spent almost all off-season and much of fall camp working on defending Michigan. I don't know how else to explain how a so-so run defense, horrendous secondary and meh pass rush turned into the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens that suddenly." Michigan might be wise to have a package of stuff designed to combat this in the future; it was equally obvious last year that disproportionate amounts of effort had gone into preparing for Michigan. Congratulations, Spartans: you're 2-3."

(Spartan fan)
At least to the bit that MSU was holding back and focusing on Michigan to the point of robbing from other games.

It looked like the same defensive schemes and alignments, the players just executed it much better against U of M than they did previously. (And in the first half we mastered the voodoo-drop-the-ball-open-reciever scheme.) U of M's oline is also not as improved as I thought it would be over last year. Kinda like the MSU secondary, experience doesn't always make players a lot better.

Emotionally? I don't think so, but that's subjective. I guess we'll see how we look at Illinois, as far as the proverbial hangover. Dantonio is 2-0 following U of M games, but the last second Wiscy win last year was a hangoverish effort.

Mostly, just feeling good about beating Michigan. Also better than I should for 2-3. We're two or three very improbable plays (onside kick and offsides on FG against CMU, blocked PAT at ND) from being 4-1.

witless chum

October 5th, 2009 at 3:07 PM ^

..."Also better than I should for 2-3." As in I'd rather be 2-3 with two close losses (Wiscy score was misleadingly close) than 2-3 having been soundly beaten three times.

I wouldn't say I'm happy with the season. I was thinking, conservatively, 8-4 with what I thought was an easier schedule over 2008. I thought the (get ready to laugh) defense would carry us through while the offense figured out life after Ringer. Maybe we go 7-1 and get there, but I wouldn't bet my collection of green and white stuff on that outcome. A lot better at 2-3 with a win over M than I would at 1-4 without a victory over a I-A team and the entire Internet of M fans howling, though.

If you want me to admit that Wolvy has had a better season so far, despite Saturday, I will. They obviously have. Ask me if I'd rather be 4-1, with our only loss to you, I'm enough of a born-and-raised Wolverine hater to think about it a second, but I'm (I think) confident that Dantonio's team won't go 1-6 down the stretch so I'd take that. Plus it would mean we'd beat ND. I love beating Michigan, but I hate losing to ND, especially under Slappy Weiss.