Let's get into it. This isn't going to be as long as I thought simply because I sort of mentally moved on after the 3rd turnover.
Worst: Ctrl-A, Delete
I try not to pre-write too much before these recaps because it feels like tempting fates. But I was also painting my house this weekend, and while I really enjoy writing these diaries I'm not going to stay up for hours when the sum-total of my output is usually "the offense looked bad, the defense is great, here's an animated gif of a professional wrestler doing something weird." So I wrote a couple of paragraphs about this rivalry, about how MSU fans will talk about how competitive it's been forever, with "forever" apparently beginnging sometime in the mid-00's. Point out that until Dantonio showed up, Michigan State hadn't beaten Michigan in consecutive games since 1967 and 1968, and you're branded as someone who lives in the past, the usual refrain from every fanbase that games you won before they experienced whatever qualifies as sustained success shouldn't count. I argued that the MSU people saw earlier this decade isn't coming back, that it took a tornado of bad ju-ju by perennial powers in the division and fortuitous player development by MSU for it to occur, and that once UM and PSU started to assert themselves again on the national stage, MSU was going to be squeezed out. And I noted that for all the apparent growth by MSU as a team both by the advanced stats and just in the competitiveness of their games, it was just in comparison to last season's terrible season. Dantonio had his moment at MSU, and it had passed.
And I knew, in the back of my mind, this hubris was going to bite me in the end. I still assumed Michigan would win because I wasn't an idiot, but I asssumed MSU would play an inspired brand of football, Michigan would let it stay close in part because of some bad luck/turnovers, and it would be one of those games that isn't an enjoyable vieiwing experience even with a good outcome. And sure, I heard about the terrible weather on the way for halftime and figured "great, Michigan will be up at halftime and can just bleed the clock." And I assumed John O'Korn wouldn't replicate his success against Purdue, and the recklessness/unpredictability and questionable decision-making that led to him being passed over in Houston, then repeatedly passed over at Michigan by Wilton Speight, would materialize in some way. And I assumed the running game would struggle to gain traction against an MSU defense that is designed to stop it by throwing as many Axe body-spray wearing MFers you can find in the state at the line. And I assumed the offensive line's horrendous pass blocking wouldn't suddenly "get right" because, last time I checked, you can't go back in time and sign and develop more players on the line even with an off week. And I assumed that, despite Brian's insistence that Michigan never should run the ball and just go Big-12 all game, the offensive playcalling was still going to set downs on a fire and continue to be the same general, uninspiring self it's been in the Harbaugh era. And I assumed that, even with probably the best defense in the country, MSU would be just crafty enough, just against-tendency enough, to score 10-14 meaingful points against them. I assumed all of this, but I also assumed that the team with the best unit on the field (Michigan's defense), homefield advantage, and by gawd 2 weeks to prepare for this mediocre MSU outfit, would find a way to win, even somewhat comfortably.
So all that's gone now. Just Ctrl-A and delete that all the way to hell.
That's not because my core assumptions going into this game have changed. I don't think MSU is somehow on the rise; they still feel like an 8-4/7-5 team that can't consistently run the ball, can't consistently pass, and can be beaten by any team capable of throwing the ball downfield. Every MSU fan will tell you recruiting doesn't matter, but they continue to recruit as the 5th- or 6th-best in the conference, and the bulk of their one truly elite class is either awaiting their next court date for sexual assault or...also awaiting for his next court date for sexual assault. They still went for 2 down 38-16 late in the 4th quarter to Notre Dame so that they "only" lost by 20, continuing this Dantonio trend of throwing truck nuts on a beater to make it look "cooler".
But MSU won this game, and I'm not going to ignore it. They got their punches in early, scored on two solid drives with creative playcalls that worked against Michigan's defensive tendencies, and then held onto through a fucking monsoon for basically the entire second half. Their defense pounced on Michigan's turnovers, robbing Michigan of probable points late in the first half and styming anything resembling any offensive rhythm throughout that second half with timely, sometimes miraculous turnovers.
But this game felt like 2001, or 1990, or even 2015, games where Michigan State was more lucky than good. That doesn't mean MSU didn't play well enough to win, only that these weren't dominant wins by superior teams like (sadly) they were against Hoke's and RR's teams. MSU needed 5 turnovers (and none of their own), a backup QB, a torrential downpour, and a QB being stopped short after a fumbled snap yet sliding on his falling center's leg to barely hold on against Michigan, and while that's usually how underdogs win games, it doesn't point toward sustained dominance in this series by the Spartans.
Bill Connelly pointed this out in his Five Factors post this weekend: MSU had a turnover margin of +4.8 above their national average, which works out to about 24 points of "bad luck" by Michigan. Michigan lost such a game by 4 points, and had a chance on the last play to still pull it out. It always sucks to be the team that has the luck go against it, but this loss still feels different. MSU tried to give this game away, and they nearly did with poor clock management and even poorer self control. This loss, as bad as it is in the moment, feels like 2015, a stumble but not a fall. I don't put too much stock into tides or narratives, but this rivalry is starting to feel like it did during most of my youth, where MSU wins were notable because of their weirdness and not their dominance. And I think the other half of that equation, the scarcity of Spartan victories, will follow soon as well.
Worst: I'm Not Even That Mad
In Michigan's last 4 losses, they have had a turnover margin (-10) larger than their combined margin of defeat (-9). On the one hand, improve ball security and this team could well be coming off a playoff run and be a top-5 team nationally. On the other hand, even with sub-optimal parts and ongoing growing pains, Michigan has been able to nearly overcome some horrendous self-inflicted wounds. I'm honestly not sure how to feel about this, but I'm cautiously optimistic that if Michigan doesn't turn the ball over 5 times, they'd probably win more games than they lose.
Worst: Obsession != Virtue
Let me start by saying STOP QUESTIONING THE HEART OF THIS TEAM AND WHETHER OR NOT THEY TAKE THIS GAME SERIOUSLY, especially in comparison to whatever perceived importance people assume Dantonio puts on it. There is no human being in the world who seems to care about this game as much as Mark Dantonio. "You aren't as insane as this person chewing off his whole leg, so you aren't passionate enough" is a terrible refrain, and insinuates that a team loses because of some banal quote on a t-shirt and not because someone has to lose in a football game. Take a step back and replace MSU with any other random mid-level opponent and the perception of this game would be "man, what terrible luck Michigan had. Shit happens, though", not "the coaches gave up and MSU wanted it more." Michigan wanted to win this game, and they prepared for it as well as possible. But sometimes plays don't work, sometimes guys inexplicably fumble while the other team recovers their two muffed exchanges even during a torrential downpour. Sometimes, again, a pretty crazy storm hits and helps bleed the clock for an opposition that couldn't do anything with the ball for a half. Sometimes a team you just lose, and it sucks, but it isn't something deeper than that on a personal level. Had Michigan miraculously scored on that final drive and won the game, it wouldn't have fundamentally changed either team's preparation, unless you believe that Michigan's goal was to win on a 40-yard Hail Mary and the previous 3 hours was just an elaborate long con to set it up. But otherwise, complaining about heart and passion is just short-hand for the speaker's inability to handle life's numerous curveballs.
Best: Nothing (in a good way)
Michigan's defense had some breakdowns in the first half: Madre London had a 50-yard run and a TD catch on a nice RB screen, a 30-yarder to Stewart that was very well covered, and Brian Lewerke was able to get free on a TD run of his own. It was a combination of randomness (the Stewart catch was the type of 50-50 ball that just as easily gets picked off), questionable officiating (the defensive PI on Metellus didn't seem remotely egregious and the less said of an unsportsmanlike penalty because two guys got into a bit after a play but you only called it on Bush) and good playcalling by MSU, exploiting Michigan's aggressive tendencies with a couple of delayed handoffs and screens. Basically, what you saw that first half against Purdue, and what most fans expected to see. They certainly didn't play badly, but the 14 points MSU scored were all relatively "earned" by the Spartans.
But also like the Purdue game, Michigan downloaded whatever MSU was trying to do and just erased their offense in the second half. At halftime MSU was averaging 5.8 ypp, a reasonably good number against what is a top-5 defense nationally. Lewerke never got comfortable throwing the ball, but he was still at 5.3 ypa and was moving the ball on the ground. But from about 3:20 left in the first half until the last drive of the game, MSU didn't record a single first down (!) and compiled a total of 36 yards (!!) of total offense. Michigan's defense nearly pitched the equivalent of a perfect game on defense; ignoring that final 1-play drive after the Michigan fumble to end the half, Michigan faced 8 drives and MSU went either 3-and-out or a turnover on downs. Caveats and all that about the weather, but that was a dominant performance by a unit that understandably could have been demoralized.
For the game, Michigan held MSU to 4.06 ypp on 62 plays, which somehow is the worst performance for the defense all year. To put that in perspective, that is Auburn's average for the year, and they are the #6 defense in the country per that stat. They recorded 4 pass break ups, including 3 by Hill, and despite not recording a sack (!) for the first time all year, they had 5 TFLs and controlled the line most of the night. Maurice Hurst lived in the backfield, recording 2.5 of those TFLs along with 8 tackles overall, a team lead he shared with Devin Bush. At no point could MSU block him with any consistency, and you could tell in that second half that even the running backs knew that any run into the line was likely going to end with 290 lb+ Mass-hole engulfing him. It was glorious to watch, and my guess is NFL scouts are salivating over his first step as well as his ability to get after runners trying to escape down the line.
MSU was able to get some decent runs going in the first half when they could get off the line quickly and either get McCray or Bush flowing the wrong way or simply get a hand on them. In particular, some of MSU's most successful plays were baiting one or both linebackers to commiting to a side, then either using a delayed-handoff to get the RB going away or throwing a short pass to the vacated area of the field. It was reasonably effective until Michigan compensated and the weather turned, removing the PO in RPO. Plus, the defense as a whole was able to minimize MSU's ability to get runs going outside the tackles, consistently turning those plays into short gains or futile attempts to cut back inside.
It really was a remarkable performance by the defense in that second half, and it sucks to see it not lead to a win. In any normal game, this type of performance gives Michigan the ability to pull ahead after their slow state, especially if Michigan State would have found itself needing to move the ball vertically. But sadly, it was for naught. But this defense looks absolutely locked in, and it's why I think Michigan still has a chance to win games like PSU and Wisconsin, to say nothing of OSU. You see what normal defenses can do to those teams and I just don't see how any team on the remaining schedule save OSU and maybe PSU can even dream of consistently moving the ball downfield, and even in those two cases it would be in suchs fits and spurts that any momentum would be fleeting.
Best: The Secondary Just Reloads
I think we are starting to get to the point where even the secondary, the expected "weak link" of the defense coming into the season, is playing at a championship level. Yes, MSU dropped a couple of open balls, but Lewerke struggled to get anything going downfield and a lot of that is due to Michigan's corners absolutely blanketing MSU's receivers. Coming off 9-catch, 114-yard game against Iowa, Felton Davis was held to a single 9-yard catch on the day. Lewerke completed 50% of his passes for 4.2 ypa, and his two longest throws of the day were that aforementioned 50-50 ball to Stewart and the screen to London for the TD. Lavert Hill probably should have had at least 1 pick, maybe 2 on the day, and David Long helped shut down anything downfield for the Spartans.
Yes, there are units out there that could test this seconary. And yes, the weather this game absolutely benefitted them defending balls downfield. But they've passed both Purdue's trickeration-based passing attack and MSU's brusing bodies approach with flying colors, and if a couple of these break ups turn into picks, they could rise to another level on a team that is already one of the best in the country.
Worst: The Other Can of O'Korn
With news that Wilton Speight was likely out for the year with three broken vertebrae, this offense officially became John O'Korn's to run. And I'll admit to being skeptical about his ability to replicate his Purdue performance against future opponents. It's not that I think he's a bad QB; in fact, I think behind this spotty offensive line he's probably the best chance Michigan has to survive and move the ball downfield. But he's still John O'Korn, the guy who got beat out in Houston because he could barely complete 50% of his passes and had more picks than TDs, the guy who couldn't beat out Wilton Speight for two straight years despite ample opportunities, and the guy who who completed 44% of his passes against IU and 46% of his passes against MSU. And yes, weather affected those last two games, but even before the rain and wind he had only completed 53% of his passes in the first half and had eaten 3 sacks. In the second half he threw interceptions on three consecutive drives, only one I'd consider bad luck (the one where the MSU DB batted the ball off his arm into the air could just have easily been an incompletion). The other two were just bad decisions (the pick on 3rd down when he probably could have run for the first, the throw into double coverage seemed like a response to being pissed about an earlier non-call on a hit), and (I'm assuming) the type of cavalier playmaking that the coaches probably frowned upon during practice. A number of times the announcers pointed out O'Korn bugging out of a reasonably clean pocket, sometimes missing wide-open players in the process. In the words of Dennis Green, he is who we thought he was, which is why I tried to temper expectations after the last game.
O'Korn absolutely suffered from some bad luck. McDoom dropped a ball directly on his numbers on that final drive that would have given them a couple of shots to the endzone. DPJ either couldn't quite get free or was held on a nice little hitch-and-go late in the second quarter. McKeon fumbled the ball to end the half when the offense finally got going a bit. Higdon held on a great throw downfield. The downpour throttled the offense even further, as did an offensive line that repeatedly allowed MSU to get pressure with only 4 defenders rushing. Playcalling seemed to abandon the run even when it was clear MSU was going to pin their ears back. All of this is true, and all of it should be considered in judging O'Korn's performance
But even given all that, O'Korn forced guys out of bounds along the sidelines. He ate sacks and failed to throw the ball away when lost yardage would kill scoring chances. He missed wide-open players and, at times, tried to flip the field with the power of his arm alone. He looked like Speight out there, trying to keep the offense moving while the world crashed in around him. And it's why I never thought he'd be some savior for the team, some cure for the ills of poor recruiting and troubling player development along the offensive line. This team's ceiling was always defined by its offense, and at this point we've seen that it has few dynamic playmakers and any advantages they present are oftentimes offset by issues setting up the plays. And O'Korn will be part of that process going forward, and I expect it to be about as variable as the last couple of weeks, save perhaps the amplitude being a bit less extreme. But there's no QB on the roster who could suddenly make this offense a smooth-running machine.
Worst: The Offensive Line, Again
You've heard it all before, so I won't repeat myself. I will simply point out that there were a number of times in this game where MSU sent 4 linemen and could get between 1 and 4 of them past the offensive line into O'Korn's lap. You know that picture you always see with 5 OSU defenders about ready to demolish Mike Hart after the snap? Yeah, this one:
Yeah, that happened multiple times this game. And this isn't MSU from a couple years ago, when they could Double-A gap you to death and had screaming hellbeasts at defensive end. This outfit had 9 sacks coming into the game and the vast majority were from the linebackers. They left Saturday with 4 sacks, including the first 3 of the season by two of their linemen (Willekes and Owens). Much like last game, where Purdue got healthy rushing the passer, Michigan again let a mediocre outfit just blow past them repeatedly. And the thing is, people want to point to Ulizio or Kugler as the problem, but it's systemic. Everyone is missing blocks, failing to pick up guys coming late, abandoning assignments too quickly to get to the second level. I don't remotely claim to know much about proper OL blocking schemes, but in the great debate of "is it bad coaching or is it players not performing", the answer is all of the above. If anything, I thought the line got better run-blocking as the game progressed because weather dictated that they just run forward with minimal guesswork or technique; Higdon had some nice runs in the late third/early fourth because it was 1 cut and go behind solid blocking. But it's about midway through the season and this is the offensive line Michigan has to work with. There isn't some guy waiting in the wings, there isn't some redshirt that should be burned. They lost 3 games last year in large part because they couldn't block all the effectively, and those same problems linger again.
Worst: The Real O'Neill
You always hear referees say that when you don't remember their names, it means they did a good job. And for most referees, they do a reasonably good job at accomplishing that feat; I didn't think the Purdue game was the best-officiated game ever, but I couldn't pick Jerry McGinnout of a lineup. But on the other end of the spectrum are your Teddy "TV" Valentine's and John O'Neill's, guys every conference fan could smell in a dark room. They make bad calls like every ref, but they tend to double down on the theatrics and the pedantry, trying to "control" a game instead of officiate it. And it's become so pervasive that fans look at the referee listings each week like Russian Roulette, hoping their team is spared O'Neill's incompetence during a crucial game. Hell, the WTKA crew has had multiple segments discussing to what level he'll screw up during an important part of a game the past couple of seasons. It'd be a joke if it wasn't so damn depressing.
In this game, O'Neill called an unsportsmanlike penalty on Devin Bush beause Brian Allen slapped him on the head and he (seemingly) slapped him back, then called the aforementioned pass interefence on Metellus for the type of physical coverage MSU was getting away with all game as well. In the second half, when the weather just erased large swaths of the playbook and I half-expected to see Mark Walhberg stumble into frame, O'Neill's ability to influence the game was minimized, though he still found a way to ignore some blatant late hits to O'Korn (to the point that O'Korn bad-mouthed him down the field) and buy what appeared to be a flop by O'Korn along the MSU sideline. He also had a couple of make-up calls that drove me insane; after the Bush penalty there was a false-start on Allen, and after the Higdon hold he called a questionable hold on MSU. The only thing worsse than watching a ref blow calls is faux atonement in the same game, because it tries to equate, say, a drive-extending play with another despite massive changes in context. And what makes it worse is that he made some correct calls; Higdon absolutely held on the Crawford TD (though I've seen that ignored in enough games to not call it bang-bang), and him awarding Lewerke on that fumbled scramble were right on the field.
Michigan didn't lose this game because John O'Neill is bad at his job. But if he's farting his way up and down the field against PSU or OSU, look out.
- I need to see the UFR for this game perhaps more than any other in recent memory. During the game I thought the playcalling was illogical, especially trying to throw the ball in the heart of the storm, but it sort of makes sense if you assume (a) Michigan figures it can't consistently run the ball, and (b) they recognized that on an unstable field, players in space with some forward momentum would be incredibly difficult to stop. Throwing a short screen or RB dump-off would have put Michigan's skill position players in space with MSU defenders trying to gather their feet, and in a game where the second half was basically washed away, one or two breaks in the air could have made the difference.
- This really was the Purdue game without the second half. MSU pulled out to the lead but then tried to basically sit on the lead for a half. Had the storm held up, Michigan probably pulls them back in the second half and wins comfortably.
- Kirk Herbstreit was beyond insufferable in this game. He's become a bit of a carictature, this un-elected voice for the authenticity and morality of the game, and when he turns it up to 11 and tries to needle one fanbase by salivating over a faux redemption story of another, it is stomach-churning. Yes, MSU deserves a redemption because they were terrible last year and a bunch of their players sexally assaulted women over the offseason. Nothing will ever quite surpass the fellating PSU received last year, but it was still hard to listen to.
Bring on the Hoosiers
Going forward, this team is going to struggle against any competent defensive line. Indiana will likely get consistent penetration into the backfield; O'Korn will probably find some lanes to scramble away and the rest of IU's defense looks tractable. But even with better weather, it's not going to be a fun game to watch. I think Michigan's defense will absolutely engulf IU's pocket-protector, DeBordian offense, and that should be enough for a win.