Best and Worst: MSU

Submitted by bronxblue on October 9th, 2017 at 7:17 AM

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.

Quick Hits

  • 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.


Everyone Murders

October 9th, 2017 at 7:33 AM ^

I'm not even that mad about the result of this game.  I stayed off the board (and other media) after the game, because I did not want to see pictures of Mark Dantonio simulating a smile, whoever the fucking idiot on MSU's defense wearing 23* and "warrior" face paint lionized, etc.  That's all nauseating, and listening to Sparty fans brag it up for a year is ... unfun.

However, our defense played a great game and we kept it close despite having five turnovers.  (Let me rephrase that - five fucking turnovers!  That part is, of course, the worst part.)  MSU played inspired in what's their marquee game, and /pukes in mouth/ deserved to win.  But we have PSU, Wiscy and OSU to make our mark.

The team is young, a work in progress, and in great hands.  We're gonna be OK.

(And thanks to BronxBlue as always for a sober and enlightening write-up.)

*Just googled it - Chris Frey.  Dear God, what a perfect poster child for that program (if you need one without prison stripes).

Everyone Murders

October 9th, 2017 at 9:34 AM ^

I appreciate the kind words.  BronxBlue does some great work in this column, and I've run through most of the Kubler-Ross stages by the time Best-Worst typically appears after a loss.  So it's nice to be able to pile on upon his good work.

We've got a great fanbase, but yeah - some of the w/e threads are a bad look.  We're currently 4-1, now more appropriately ranked, and our future is pretty damned bright. 


October 9th, 2017 at 8:58 AM ^

Thanks for the comment; I totally agree. And I'm not even sure if MSU deserved the win any more than Michigan; somebody had to win and another had to lose. It just sucks to be on the wrong end.

I will say, MSU has had a run of LBs in Frey and Bullough that just are the physical embodiment of that program.

Wisconsin Wolverine

October 9th, 2017 at 9:31 AM ^

I'm with you.  It would be a painful and frustrating loss against anyone, and it's worse against MSU, but it's no mystery why we lost this game.  I know we had ratcheted up our expectations at the start off the season with the hype coming out of summer practices, but the combination of a fantastic defense and an extremely combustible offense will keep a lot of games close this year.  We'll lose some games that we "should" win, but maybe the defense can get us into position to pull off wins against some tough teams like PSU, Wisconsin, and OSU.  I have to accept that this probably won't be a playoff type of year, but I hope we can still mine a lot of good things out of it and maintain an upward trajectory.

Everyone Murders

October 10th, 2017 at 7:51 AM ^

66 yards of offense in the second half is an "ass whoopin"?  You learn something new every day.

And you say (quoting my original comment)

The team is young, a work in progress, and in great hands. We're gonna be OK.

is arrogance?  I don't think you know what arrogance is.

Congratulations on the win I noted that MSU deserved.  And good luck on developing your language arts skills.*

*Now that's arrogant, but in fairness, you're the one coming onto the board to act the douche.


October 9th, 2017 at 7:45 AM ^

This should be required reading by everyone who has posted on the various game threads, showflake threads, and Fire <insert name here> threads.  I, for one, appreciate the effort.


October 9th, 2017 at 8:17 AM ^

The point is, it's not some random mid-level team. It's the fucking Spartans, their douchebag players and asshole coach. It's losing to these assholes again and again and even though bad luck appears to be a factor in two of the three games, you still have to be in a position to make it work for you. Michigan got their asses beat, the storm affected Michigans offense as well and if games are going to continue to be this ugly, then who's to say Michigan is likely to come out winning them given how bad the offense is.

Appreciate the (cautious?)optimism, but it feels a bit out of place right now.


October 9th, 2017 at 8:55 AM ^

But everything you said is all perception by the fans. MSU is still the third or fourth best team in this division right now. Had they lost this rock fight to Indiana, people wouldn't have been half as mad even though those games have also featured ugly performances and weird luck. It's just Michigan has won them.

I don't live in Michigan so i don't see many Spartans, but losing a rivalry game can suck without thinking it worthwhile to game plan specifically for a mediocre team for 12 months. Michigan crushed MSU last year and stymied them the entire second half. Michigan more than doubled MSU's offense in the second half, even in the storm. They had figured them out, and because of some bad breaks they lost. As I said, this is the Purdue game without a viable second half. I'm optimistic because MSU needed so much to go right for them to barely pull this game out.

I Just Blue Myself

October 9th, 2017 at 9:20 AM ^

Bronx, MSU starts 14 players that are freshman or sophomores. While they may be the 4th best team in the division, when the division has three top 10 teams, that isn't some huge flaw. I get this game not bothering you because it was played in a monsoon, but that State team is probably going to be formidable, if not downright scary in a couple years. 


October 9th, 2017 at 11:16 AM ^

My point is that this MSU team you saw wasn't even the MSU team you would have seen two weeks ago.  They could barely move the ball against Michigan from about midway through the first half.  They have a crater of a recruiting class from 2 years ago, then a mediocre class after that.  They can't throw the ball, can barely run the ball, and their defense was fine but certainly not dominant.  They needed 5 TOs, a second-string QB, a terrible rainstorm, a bushels of good luck to win by 4 points.  They'll most likely lose by PSU and OSU this year, and unless you see oodles of talent out there that I don't, I don't see them suddenly eclipsing either of those teams, to say nothing of Michigan getting their even younger, less-experienced team more reps and improving naturally.

Again, I welcome criticism of my takes.  But I will counter with information when I think it is relevant to the context.  MSU is young this year; Michigan is even younger, and looks to have s stronger, deeper pipeline of talent coming through the ranks.

I Just Blue Myself

October 9th, 2017 at 11:41 AM ^

I suppose I'm numb to the "recruiting rankings = definitive success" argument. Yes, 5* players matter; Alabama and Clemson aren't winning due to underrated 3*s, but somehow MSU is still able to have success that few other programs can match over the past 5ish years.  

Not that they will continue to be the dominant team in our rivalry with them. I think it will be much more even. I also agree that they will lose to PSU and OSU, and possibly even another team or two. But that MSU team will be formidable in the near future, and will be a player in the division possibly even next year. To think otherwise is naive and bordering on homerism. 

In my opinion of course, and my opinion often turns out to be wrong.


October 9th, 2017 at 12:55 PM ^

They will be competitive this year and beyond; last year's crater was misleading.  But I do think that, over the long haul, having more talented players at more positions wins out.  And the rest of the division (save Ruitgers) should either improve or at least stay close to where they are now.  That means every year MSU is going to need to compete and win games against teams with, at least on paper, equal or more talent.  


October 9th, 2017 at 3:31 PM ^

Rich Rod had more talented players.  Hoke had more talented players.  MSU has only 12 seniors this year, and their middle linebacker, Bachie(?) is a sophomore and was a 3* recruit.  Lewerke, easily the best QB in the game, is a sophomore.  Their interior lineman, who did a nice job stopping the run are sophomores (one a 3* and one a 4*).  So, I don't understand how you can say, it was unfortunate, but MSU ain't all that.  If you look at the starting players of pro teams, you won't find a lot of former 5* players.  This place has put far too much stock into ranking stars, but the only place where numbers tell the truth is the record. We've lost 8 of the last 10.  That, to me, is a trend.  There already is talent on the team--Harbaugh has been killing it for three years.  To me, lack of "talent" is sophistic.


October 9th, 2017 at 4:45 PM ^

MSU has two very good defensive tackles.  Their LBer is perfectly serviceable and so is Lewerke, but "easily the best QB in the game" either means he's better than O'Korn, which I'll concede, or you are saying is the best QB in college football, which I assume isn't what you meant.  Also, Lewerke finished the day with with 94 yards on 22 attempts, 50% completion percentage, and 61 yards on 15 more carries.  He's a fine QB, but comparing him to O'Korn isn't a particularly high bar.  

The 8 of 10 streak absolutely is relevant, but in the years since Harbaugh has arrived, MSU has won with the flukiest of muffed punts as time expired, then were run over at home by Michigan, then won by the skin of their teeth in a driving rain storm, with a +5 TO margin, and MSU still nearly gave it away by holding on their last drive when they could have bled the clock, then foolishly roughing the passer to give them a free 15 yards, then nearly giving up a hail mary.  If I have to hear from MSU fans about how the 1990s aren't relevant anymore, I sure don't care all that much about Dantonio beating up 3-9 Michigan in RR's first year either.

Also, check out last year's draft - 10 of the top 32 picks were 5*'s, and well over half were 4*+.  Considering most years there are only 25-30 5* players, that's pretty impressive.  It matters how much talent you have on your roster, and while rankings are not the be-all, end-all in determining this, every team absolutely tries to nab the best players possible at a given position every year, and HS rankings are reasonably accurate in aggregate as identifying them.


October 12th, 2017 at 1:55 PM ^

... but I disagree with the excuse that UofM's loss was heavily dependent on the 5 TOs.  Despite JB citing it as his first and most important excuse, I maintain that the 3 interceptions (and probably the TE fumble) did not change the outcome of the game.  UofM was not going to score a 2nd TD and MSU didn't need to score again because they were ahead.  Even if the interceptions had not occured, why does anyone think UofM was going to score again?

IMO, UofM folded after Ty Isaac's fumble and the D did NOT play great defense in the 1st half.  MSU capitalized on the 1st TO and had some great calls (that were well-executed) against our D.  That, in a nutshell, was the ballgame.

I really hope our young QBs get some experience this year.  The experience Lewerke got last year is really paying off MSU this year.  

Let's face it, UofM's OLine, QBs, RBs, and playcalling are not going to get it done (a BIG 10 Championship).  I'm not giving up on this year, but I also want to see us ready for next year.  Unless some massive changes are made, it's realistic to expect that UofM will lose at least 2 more games this year.  That gets us nowhere.  Let's go with the young guys, and let them gain some very valuable in-game experience.  If we lose more 1-2 games because of doing that, does it really matter?  How else are we going to get ready for next year?


October 9th, 2017 at 9:54 AM ^

Depending on how you count the RBs, Michigan starts/gives significant playing time to 19 freshmen or sophomores this year, and that doesn't even count Tarik Black, who would probably the starter if he wasn't injured.  And for a number of these guys, they are starting at MSU because literally there is nobody else availabe, similar to Ulizio being the RT despite sub-optimal performance.  So no, I'm not all that worried about MSU somehow becoming a juggernaut going forward because, well, Michigan is even younger and looks to have a much brighter future.


October 9th, 2017 at 8:25 AM ^

There seemed to be 4-5 different times O'Korn could have just tucked the ball and ran for easy 1st downs, but instead threw a pass into coverage. Frustrating to have some legs at QB and not have them used. 

Everyone Murders

October 9th, 2017 at 8:38 AM ^

I saw that too, but wondered if he had been coached to not run unless to escape pressure, given that MSU has been Cheap Shot U in the past.  (To be fair, I did not see a ton of that on display Saturday - but the history is there.) 

If the failure to scramble for easy 1st downs is a result of coaching, it suggests that the perceived dropoff to Peters is significant.  If it's O'Korn trying to wait for plays to develop that just aren't there?  That's fixable.

Anyway, we'll see if that pattern persists.  Good observation in the meantime!


October 9th, 2017 at 9:55 AM ^

I think the bigger thing is O'Korn isn't a running QB, he's a pass-first QB with some mobility. He averaged 1.4 yards a carry his first year at Houston in 77 carries. Yes, he can move around a bit, but it's not his game to run for firsts. He's going to look down field and use his speed to buy himself an extra beat. Plus, it's different when you are the starter and you're already on your #2 QB. You can't really afford to take too many shots.


October 9th, 2017 at 8:37 AM ^

For kicks, you should poll Michigan fans on that picture of OSU running through the offensive line. I'll bet a lot of people would answer "Hoke" or "Rodriguez" when asked about the coach.

It was Lloyd Carr, of course. His last few offensive lines (Long excepted) weren't that great, either.


October 9th, 2017 at 4:55 PM ^

In fairness, that was the game that Henne tried to tough it out on a bum shoulder and couldn't throw at all.  OSU's defense accordingly ganged up on the run.


You Only Live Twice

October 9th, 2017 at 9:45 AM ^

Looked forward, as always for your refreshing take on things.  (Especially after the threads and comments yesterday...)  You do an amazing job of cutting through the emotions and presenting logic, while retaining a sense of humor.  Wish I had your ability to do that.

Thanks also for putting some perspective on the QB situation.  O'Korn seems to be in the middle of people's expectations - not as great as people hoped when Speight was starting, but also not terrible.  Yes, some of his performance was discouraging Saturday, some of it was also encouraging as he tried to salvage plays on ihs own - scrambling and throwing a dart downfield.  He was confident against Purdue and a bit more rattled in this game, it seemed. However this is why I don't want to see Brandon Peters in front of that line.

We were standing there in the drenching rain, and the common feeling for the Michigan fans nearby was that we needed either lighting (for a rain delay) or the rain to stop for us to be able to pull ahead.  It was maddening how close we came to doing that even with 5 TOs.  You are so on the money.



October 9th, 2017 at 10:12 AM ^

The sky isn't falling on this team. With our D, we have a chance to win every game. While our offense is WILDLY inconsistent with young receivers, a porous O-line, and average QB play, its expected we will have ups and downs. However, I think they will have some very good games and it wont surprise me in the least if we beat PSU. The O showed flashes against MSU, but shot itself in the foot with turnovers, drops, and penalties. I wonder how different this board would be post MSU if Higdon doesnt hold on that bomb from JOK and we hold onto at least one of those fumbles. Yes, that's football, but while this offense has issues, its also close to becoming competent enough to win games with our D. Clean up some of the mistakes and we will be fine. Let's be honest though, we are not a playoff team with this offense. 

Best: Our D

Worst: The list is long for the O and that also includes the coaching. The reality is we still dont have an elite QB, running back, O-Line, and WRs. The WRs seem to have a bright future and I am hoping Ruiz and Filaga make the jump in year 2, as well as one of the QBs stepping up next Spring. Moreover, something is not clicking with the coaching staff on O. Too many cooks in the kitchen? An O-Line coach who is an offensive coorindator? Suspect play calling? Concepts too advanced for young players? Who knows for sure, but the coaches also need to get it together just as much as the players.

Some other points...the offense obviosuly is lacking confidence, but they also seem too passive and not physical enough. At least Higdond runs hard and I like when JOK lowers his shoulder. We dont see enough of that from other players. MSU's defense hit them hard and dirty earlier and you could see them all complaining. If someone brings the fight to have to hit them back to show you are not going to back down. MSU's D knew early on they intimdated our O.


October 9th, 2017 at 10:18 AM ^

It's pretty hard to see MSU going 7-5. Even 8-4 would require an upset. They don't play Wisconsin and they've already beaten the West's 2nd best team (Iowa). If you factor in losses to PSU and OSU (which is pretty generous given Dantonio's track record), the next toughest game is Indiana and that's at home. They aren't losing to Maryland or Rutgers and it's also hard to see them losing to a bad Northwestern team. This week's trip to Minnesota could be tricky coming off the rivalry win, but I still think MSU wins that.


October 9th, 2017 at 11:11 AM ^

To be clear, I'm not saying they are back to the 2013-2015 MSU level. I do think they are a legit top 25 team. Sagarin has them rated #22. S&P has them #26. I have seen enough from them this season to say that while they could lose to Indiana or Minnesota, it's not likely. S&P projects them to go 5-2 down the stretch.

Also ND is a very good team this year. They gave #4 Georgia by far their toughest game of the season and coud have very well won that game. So for MSU I don't think there is any shame in losing to ND.


October 9th, 2017 at 11:27 AM ^

I won't disagree with the sentiment that they are a good team.  They are.  But they still look like an 8-4/7-5 team to me.  The S&P projections of 5-2 makes sense, but that also gave Michigan something like an 85% chance of winning this past game and we saw how that played out.  ND is very good this year, but my bigger point was how much of a blowout that game was.  You see 38-18 and figure it wasn't that bad, but I watched that game and MSU wasn't all that close even with the dignity scores at the end.  

I just don't know what to make of them.  I think people's views are skewed by watching them this weekend.  That first-half offense is by far the most creative they've looked all year, and that 50-yard run by London was the longest of the year for their entire running crew.  The next closest run was a 44-yarder by Scott that came on a 4th-and-1 against WMU.  It just isn't a dynamic offense, and their defense is suspect to decent passing attacks.  The fact Michigan couldn't quite take advantage of that is more an indictment of Michigan than a virtue of MSU.

I Just Blue Myself

October 9th, 2017 at 3:53 PM ^

I also watched (a portion) of their game against Notre Dame, and while that was a three score game, if memory serves, MSU gave up a pick-6 on their first possession, and fumbled at the goaline on their second. They essentially gifted Notre Dame 14 of their 20 point victory. Granted, I didn't watch the second half. And quickly looking at the box scores in their other games, they still haven't had anyone throw for over 200 yards on them, so I'm not sure if their defense is still poor against the pass. They certainly didn't look like they were on Saturday. 

I was not ready to be this frustrated after the game. 


October 9th, 2017 at 4:55 PM ^

I would point out that MSU also scored 8 points down 38-10 and with about 3 minutes left in the game.  If we ignore all the scoring in the 4th quarter (ND tacked on a FG), MSU was losing to ND 35-10 at home after 3 quarters, and had something like 250 yards of total offense.  So it cuts both ways; I don't view a pick-6 at midfield something that should be held against the winning team.

I mean, Michigan nearly threw for 200 yards against them in a driving rain storm.  The 4 other teams they've played (BGSU, WMU, ND, and Iowa) are the 62nd, 104th, 115th, and 75th passing attacks in the country.  And WMU needed 7 OTs to rack up their season-high of 269 yards passing.  Michigan is 75th in that same metric, and has faced the 95th, 120th, 69th, and 39th ranked passing offenses on that same list, and held that group to about 45 yards per game less in the air.  

My point isn't to say MSU is as bad as they were last year, but I watched Saturday's game and saw a mediocre MSU team that people are going to assume it back when they're still a 7-5/8-4 outfit at best.


October 9th, 2017 at 10:25 AM ^

The offense had been living on borrowed time all season - this was just the game that finally saw a loss come of it.  The biggest questions is, simply: can they show any significant improvement during the remainder of the season? 

I believe the answer is yes, but it could only come in two ways.  The first is that the players just improve on fundamentals and show enough step-like improvement to make this a moderately functional offense following the theme that coaches are going for (which is....something pro-like).  The second is somekind of dramatic shift in offensive philosophy to account for the personnel available (I keep thinking back to Baylor a few years ago getting down to their Nth backup QB and almost overnight overhauling their offense from a "pass for 500 yards" team to a "run/sweep for 500 yards" team).

The first is the more reasonable method and what the staff will likely attempt, but I'm not sure how much the OL can improve at this point (though I do expect to see O'Korn show somekind of improvement after getting so much gametime).  The second method is extremely risky and, even if properly excecuted, may only yield positive results for one game (when no one is expecting it).  Beside, it has somewhat been attempted (poorly) by the RR and Hoke staffs since neither had entirely "their" players on hand (but better coaching could have done more perhaps).

Either way, I can see us upsetting one of UW, PSU, or OSU this year but that may be it.


October 9th, 2017 at 5:26 PM ^

I am amazed by what they did in 2015.  Down their top 2 QsB, top WR, top RB, and RT, they went single wing, used 5 different players as "QB," and ran for 645 yards (after being a top passing team) against a top 20 team to win their bowl game.  Brilliant coaching.  


October 9th, 2017 at 10:59 AM ^

Great well reasoned take.

Only part I disagree with, which in a way SHOULD make us feel better(but sadly doesn't), is the notion that MSU is an 8-4/7-5 type of team.

I think they finish 9-3, with 8-4/10-2 as equally likely on either side. Their only hard games left are PSU/OSU, (Minnesota and Northwestern both look much worse than expected and they get IU/Maryland at home). Also get PSU with great timing. Lions could be down coming off a loss in Columbus plus Franklin vs. Mork.


October 9th, 2017 at 11:28 AM ^

Really enjoyed this column, thanks.

However, two things...

Let's pump the brakes on the second half D performance. That was during the monsoon and when MSU basically went into a turtle mode. They really didn't even try to get yards. They just wanted to eat clock and hold on to the ball. When they did try for once at the end of the game, they got what they needed (first down). Giving up 14 points in a half and letting them get that first down (sure it was fluky at the 1st down line, but he should have been tackled 9 yards previous to that), is not something an "elite" defense would do.

I am envisioning that this D will give up 20 to 28 points to the likes of PSU and OSU. Not sure how we win those games when our offense is sputtering along like it is now. I just don't think we will have a very good chance to win against good to great offenses.

Another point is that for the entire year, we have been harping about how MSU opponents never test CB/S deep and we ended up doing the exact same thing. Only time we threw deep were fades where 75% of the balls were out of bounds. We did not throw once deep down the middle (except for the broken play with holding). I may not fault the coaching staff for "heart", but I can fault them for their "brain". We all know where the soft spot is with quarters defense and how to hit that soft spot should have been all they should have practiced the entire bye week and we didn't see any new wrinkle on that. That is on coaches and that is particularly dis-heartening.


October 9th, 2017 at 11:37 AM ^

See, I disagree with the idea that MSU tried to milk the second-half clock.  They tried throwing the ball and it sailed on them or it was stopped.  They tried the same running plays as they did in the first half, these slow-developing delayed handoffs that Michigan sniffed out.  Michigan was moving the ball semi-effectively for stretches, and no coach is going to stop trying to move the ball on the ground with a half of football to go, especially when Michigan was within 4 points for long stretches of it.  Plus, MSU got that first down they needed after a fumbled snap and getting stopped 3 yards behind the line but sliding on a lineman.  That wasn't how they drew it up by any means.  Elite defenses give up 14 points sometimes; Michigan gave up 10 to MSU in the first half last year and still murdered them.  

Also, you don't use your whole bye week to prepare for a single team.  You use it to address, say, having to integrate a new staritng QB into your lineup, prepare for opponents beyond MSU, and generally try to get healthy.  It looked like Michigan tried to integrate some new elements to the offense, but when MSU is able to get solid pressure with 4 guys, you can't do much about that.  And O'Korn did just miss some open guys.  I thought the gameplan was reasonable enough, it just wasn't perfectly executed.  Which happens.  But turning the ball over 5 times isn't a lack of gameplanning either.