Writing these after wins is a lot of fun!
Best: A History Lesson
For this week in "why I didn't watch the game in real-time", I was given tickets to see the Broadway hit musical Hamilton, and by chance the show was during the bulk of the MSU game. For those of you who don't know about the musical, it's basically the life story of Alexander Hamilton and his relationship with Aaron Burr, portrayed as a tortured, cantankerous genius and an empty suit, respectively. I don't know how historically accurate it is, though it did hold true to a clever ad campaign. But it was still thoroughly entertaining, in no small part because I got to see what Thomas Jefferson would look like in a bad-ass purple ensemble free-style rapping.
The biggest takeway I got from the story was that Hamilton was seemingly always destined for greatness due to sheer ability and force of will, but made just enough missteps to "keep it interesting." It's not a perfect analogy, but it felt a bit like watching Michigan football for the past, oh, 2 decades. Every success doesn't feel as fulfilling as it should because you know there should have been more, or been easier. Yes, the Hoke and Rich Rod years featured a ton of self-inflicted wounds, but even under Carr Michigan would trot out these world-beaters and then stub their toes on the way ot greatness. It got demoralizing after a while, and you started to wonder if this was the new normal.
But these past couple of weeks may be the turning point, when potential is realized and ghosts are put to rest. Michigan has beaten two of the better teams in this conference over the past decade by a combined score of 59-20. They've outgained them 839-377. Combined, those two teams threw for 115 yards at 29% completion percentage; Rutgers somehow went 2/17 last weekend and still aren't close to that level of futility. They had a couple of turnovers in this game during the nasty weather part but were otherwise ruthlessly efficient. They played like a team that, suddenly, controls it's destiny to making the college playoffs, and the road ahead just got a ton clearer as both PSU and OSU continue to struggle. It's not a given by any means that Michigan is going to coast into Indy, but after the bye they'll welcome a scuttling PSU team and then it's a couple tune-ups before heading to Columbus to face an OSU team that can't stop anyone or run the ball with any consistency. Michigan is playing like a team that isn't going to waste their shot at greatness, and that's great to see.
In this game, MSU tried all the tricks that previously had worked. They tried to mean-mug before the game, take shots during, and make excuses afterwards. None of it mattered, of course, because Michigan was the better team and played like it. This probably isn't a vintage MSU team, but I'm not sure those years are ever going to come back for them. It's no coincidence that MSU ascended when Michigan (and to a lesser extent PSU) fell off a bit. From 2007 to 2015, MSU was 75-31; since then, they're a much more pedestrian 29-17. Over that same frames, PSU went 69-33 and then 34-13, while Michigan was 55-46 and then 35-12. MSU's success never occurred in a vacuum, and as the traditional powers have risen they've suffered. Hell, even last year's 10-3 season was a bit of a mirage, a bunch of close wins coupled with crazy turnover luck in their marquee games. The fact they beat PSU last week is more a testament to how bad Franklin was at his job as anything MSU did; this week showed that if there's a gulf between the two programs, it's not what was written about to start the year. And while I don't expect MSU to just crumble away, since Harbaugh has arrived Michigan has been, what, 2-3 plays away from being 4-0 against the Spartans? If not for a 1-in-a-million punt he'd be 3-1 without question. And while recruiting isn't everything, it's a lot, and Michigan is seemingly back to where they were before last year's blip, while MSU is chugging along a step below. Michigan should have won this game by more, which is pretty telling in a 14-point win on the road. Again, a lot can change in a year, but the trajectory of these teams feels light-years different than it was a season ago, and Michigan's feels far more sustainable than I think a lot of fans expected.
Worst: Class Action
So Graham Couch, a flaming bag of hot takes in search of doorstep to sit on, was at it again after this game. This time, he took deep, pearl-clutching offense to Chase Winovich using the (admittedly EXTREMELY played out) little brother comment about MSU, talking about ownership of a rivalry, act like you've been there, and all the holier-than-thou bullshit that only applies AFTER a grown man comments on some shit-talking between college athletes.
And if that's the Omega to this stupidity, the Alpha was the insanity around the pre-game line walking in which a whole lot of MSU coaches, fans, and media types employed the Simpson's "If you get hit, it's your fault" defense for what was correctly noted is a "bush league" move by Mark Dantonio.
Honestly, nobody is really "classy" when it comes to sports; like "hustle" and "desire", it's all subjective BS that compensates for substance in whatever argument you're trying to make. But when you've not got much of substance to say, you fall back on these cliches because it'll elicit some partisan response. MSU walked across that field late, with Dantonio originally in front and well aware that a couple of Michigan players were stretching at the time. He probably knew, and undoubtedly was hoping for, some type of altercation to occur, because that's what colors rivalries that are otherwise largely based on proximity and familiarity - dumb, petty slights concocted by both sides to lay claim to the moral high ground atop a floating trash island. It's Mike Hart calling MSU an obnoxious younger brother, it's Dantonio calling him short, it's all the spikes in the ground, yanking of helmets, Glenn Winston and Jon Reschke, and everything else that surrounds what has been an 8-3 run by MSU in this series.
I personally find Mark Dantonio obnoxious and petty; any millionaire who takes it personally when college athletes make fun of each other is not going to be someone I'm paticularly fond of. MSU fans would say something reasonably analogous about Jim Harbaugh, and they wouldn't be completely off-base. But there are assholes on both sides, and let's remember that the vast majority of Michigan and Michigan State fans, alumni, and employees are good, honest people who are equally as "classy" as anyone else you'll meet in your travels. Yes, Larry Nassar happened at MSU with seemingly, um, limited contrition by certain key players, but while I'd argue there is some causal connection between the various transgressions across the MSU athletic department and the "indifference" toward accountability in the administration, those players on the field and their fans had nothing to do with it, and that would be true if the jerseys were flipped. And this isn't me sitting on a high horse; I will cop to inappropriately making the analogy like a whole lotta other people, and it was wrong.
But Michigan won this game because they were significantly better than MSU at football, and that's it. It's not karma, it's not righteous justice, it's nothing more than college coaches and athletes from Ann Arbor being better than their East Lansing counterparts, and while your mileage may vary on the antics that anteceded and proceeded it, trying to divine some morality from them is a foolish errand.
Best: Smart Numbers, Dumb Numbers, All the Numbers
One of the great debates in analyzing sports is the relative, well, relevance of certain statistics. Baseball is now basically math played between first and third base. Basketball has gone through numerous revolutions since it was invented as a less violent alternative to football, with the most recent one being the ascendance of the 3-pointer from "break in case of emergency" to "make the whole plane out of the black box". In football, the most recent inflection point occurred with a move away from running the ball the majority of the team to a more pass-heavy attack. And while some people you sorta knew wouldn't agree disagreed, it's generally accepted that "you gotta run the ball to win" has been replaced by "you have to be able to move the ball to win". And while in college you can have more diversity of viable offenses than, say, in the NFL, even run-happy outfits like Wisconsin and Iowa can and will air it out when necessary.
Of course, sports have always been based on numbers; it's the whole reason you play - to accumulate a different number than your opponent that makes the distinction meaningful. How we perceived games have been shaped by numbers for years, as the language around them has become flecked with terms like "S&P" and "VORP", "efficiency" and "probabilistic models". And what used to be cutting-edge statistics - yards per carry, time of possession - have been usurped by ever more illustrative and transformative metrics, and those shall likely be passed by the rise if bio-informatics and other, ever-more-precise tools.
But at it's core, what all these numbers are trying to do is figure out who played better, how they did it, and what it means going forward. To bring some method to the randomness of sport, or to paraphrase Bill Connelly to make some sense of a bunch of college kids trying to hold onto a pointy ball. And in this game, regardless of what number you looked at, Michigan deserved to win.
Michigan out-gained MSU 395-94 in total yardage, certainly the largest disparity by either team since Dantonio arrived at MSU and one of the largest in the rivalry's history. Michigan picked up 183 rushing yards against a unit that came into the game allowing under 63, and threw for another 212 yards (at 8.5 ypa), while MSU mustered only 15 yards on 23 carries and another 79 yards on 28 attempts in the air. Michigan held the ball for what must have felt like a millenia to MSU's defense, 41 minutes compared to about 19, and started at their own 31 versus the Spartans at their own 25, on average. UM was 8/18 on 3rd/4th down; MSU was a dismal 0/13. MSU's most successful offensive play was penalty; they got 5 first downs via the flag and only 6 total(!!!) via the pass or run. And despite facing 27 less plays on defense than MSU (79 to 51), Michigan had more sacks (4 to 2) and the same number of TFLs (7) as the Spartans, with more yards (32 to 24) lost for MSU. Hell, just looking at the drive chart tells 95% of the story in this game. About the only areas of the game where MSU did significantly better than Michigan were random (2 fumbles to 1 recovered) or damning with faint praise (MSU had 93 tackles to Michigan's 41, and had about 100 yards of extra punts). By any general metric, UM dominated this game.
But as we've seen, Michigan - Michigan State games don't always play by the rules of mother nature; Michigan State has a way to make good teams play dumb, and when you dig into the analytics a bit deeper you'll see how it all came about. But even here, the smart" numbers show that Michigan State truly, deeply deserved to be run off the field the way they were. Other than turnover luck, Michigan was the better team in every "deeper" facet of the game, culminating in a post-game win probability of 99%. And that's been a trend since Harbaugh arrived at Michigan as it pertains to MSU - Michigan has usually played "better" during the game, only for MSU to muck it up enough to pull a couple of upsets. On the one hand, it's infuriating to see chances for victory blown, but on the other hand these past couple of MSU wins have felt more like the ones I remember growing up. With few exceptions, MSU would win in squeakers, usually due to some memorable incident, while Michigan typically won comfortably. Since Harbaugh has arrived, the average score in this rivalry has been 22-18 UM, with about a 60 yardage gap for the Blue side (340 to 283). So when MSU fans talk about them "owning" this rivalry recently, they can thanks Rich Rod and Hoke for that. And it might be time to inform them that the tides seem to be shifting somewhat permanently back.
Best: Rain, Rain Went Away, MSU Forgot How to Play
Much was made about the weather before the game, and true to form it was your typical "October in Michigan" day where sun and hail were both in the forecast. And as everyone (including the announcers) noted, MSU played much better when the weather was it's worst, as their lone scoring "drive" came about because of a fumble inside the Michigan 10-yard line and then survived a trading of fumbles on the ensuing drive. I half-expected the cameras to cut to every Michigan fan in attendance just to see various permutations of this:
But unlike last year's game, the rain stopped and Michigan got back to smashing MSU to bits. Because unlike in years past, Michigan had an answer to the conditions. I didn't think Patterson had a particularly great day throwing the ball, but he was accurate enough when necessary and, more importantly, ran the read-option quite well. A couple of times he would pull the ball deep into the mesh point, taking advantage of MSU's aggressiveness and, frankly, Karan Higdon's and Ben Mason's ability all day to churn out 3-4 yards a carry against the MSU front 7. And then when he was asked to throw the ball, he was able to hit DPJ deep for the back-breaking TD and Grant Perry and Nico Collins on a couple of key balls that kept drives alive. Compare that to MSU, where Lewerke had the worst performance in decades and, injuries aside, hasn't looked particularly sharp all year (60% passing, 8:7 TD:INT ratio, 7 ypa). MSU hasn't been able to run the ball all year (125th nationally in yards per carry), and even with LJ Scott apparently discovering Uber and thus not getting caught with a driving infraction on his way to the game, MSU struggled to move the ball at all against Michigan. And while Graham Couch (there he is again, with his bag of takes) trying to compare this year's MSU defense to their 2013 unit, MSU never had much of an answer for UM in the air or on the ground, as Michigan had 84 yards on the ground at halftime and, when able to hold onto the ball, were capable of consistently moving up and down the field. MSU's rush defense always felt a bit of a fabrication, forged in the crucible of a half-dozen bad-to-terrible rush offenses and showing cracks whenever they ran into teams capable of providing even token resistance at the point of attack.
Worst: SO MANY OFFSETTING PENALTIES
This is probably the millionth time I've said it already in this diary, but Michigan-Michigan State is a big rivalry, with a lot of bad blood on both sides. People got into a fight a couple of hours before the game started, and then multiple adults protected some grass in the center of the field because they were legitimately concerned that Devin Bush or some other Wolverine would come out and Rick James the logo. So I get that tensions were high. But I don't think I've ever seen 4 sets of off-setting personal foul penalties in a game, nor 8 unsportsmanlike penalties overall, like I did here. Some of them made sense; there were a couple of "guys throw jabs at each other after the play" and the like that are called, especially early on, so that the referees can hopefully quell future, heightened aggression. But at some point, guys were getting called for penalties for apparently flexing (as Bush was), stopping an MSU defender from tearing a guy's leg, and tackling MSU too hard.
That said, my biggest concern (that the refs would bail out Lewerke's terrible throws with PIs) never really materialized, much to the chagrin of MSU fans and with delicious irony to everyone else who had to watch their corners sit on receivers for a decade. In a game with an hour lightning delay, hail, and crazy rain, that was one act of the fates too many for MSU to expect to bail them out.
Best: The Defense
Lots of small points here, so will just list them.
- Gary being out hasn't mattered much, as guys like Uche and Paye have slid in with minimal disruption to the overall ferocity of the defense. That's a great sign going forward, but if Michigan is going to truly compete for all the postseason possibilities ahead of them they'll need Gary back. Plus, the tackles were able to rotate through with Dwumfour and Solomon joining Kemp and Mone; to see those guys looking spry was a fantastic sign going forward. Though I'll admit that seeing both Uche and Paye slice into the backfield with some consistency opposite Winovich felt "right" in a way that hasn't happened consistently with Gary this year.
- We take for granted that Devin Bush and Chase Winovich will be two of the best players on the field against whomever lines up on the other side, but in what is likely their last MSU game they both thoroughly dominated their matchups. Winovich had 3 QB hurries and probably a half-dozen more that went unrecorded, while Bush never let MSU's ground game even gasp for air.
- Brian Lewerke absolutely looked out of sorts this game, and I'll buy he had an injury to his shoulder. Felton Davis was limited and then suffered a terrible ACL tear midway through the game. And MSU came into the game with some injuries at the skill positions. All of this is true. Still, any attempt to use them as an excuse for this historically poor passing performance unfairly ignores just how good the secondary was all day. MSU's receivers were blanketed all day, and with few exceptions they were rarely a threat to break even a moderate gain had the ball been on the mark. Hell, even some of MSU's completions were dubious, in particlar Heyward's one-handed snag that absolutely bounced on the turf as he came down with it. This was dominance at all three levels of the defense, and one that I honestly didn't expect in a game where MSU typically unleashes every trick in their bag.
- After a 1-week hiatus, the referees apparently realized that holding was an option again, dinging MSU twice for the infraction. There is no rhyme or reason to it, but Michigan was the aggressor all day and it was nice to see them get a couple of calls because of it.
- I don't know where to put this, but Felton Davis getting hurt is rough for anyone, and I feel terrible how it happened. Rivalries and all that, but I don't want anybody to get hurt in games like this. Hopefully he makes a full recovery and can keep playing in the NFL.
Best: The Offense (Mostly)
Same as above, with for the offense.
- I was initially a little concerned that Michigan had to call two timeouts in the first quarter because their offens was out of sorts with the playcalls, but both times it was probably better to get everyone set instead of possible wasting a down on a bad play. The first time resulted in a nothing run by Higdon but the second was right before the weather delay and Michigan was able to pick up a first down and stay on schedule. In a game where Michigan was the better, more talented team, I'm fine with them not giving MSU a negative play or a turnover because someone had the call wrong.
- Similarly, I wasn't as bothered as some when Patterson stayed reasonably conservative with the ball downfield. I know Klatt and others were calling for him to throw some 50/50 balls to Michigan's receivers, but like with Wisconsin I'd rather the offense not give MSU a short field with a bad turnover. And maybe I'm a luddite, but I am pragmatic about how effective it is to throw the ball up for a tall receiver; sometimes it works and it's a great club to have in your bag in a pinch, but guys like Collins and Gentry haven't quite shown that Hemingway-esque high-point ability. Frankly, my bigger issue was that Patterson failed to throw the ball away on a couple of plays moreso than throwing it downfield.
- As for Patterson, he had an up-and-down game, but it's undeniable that he has a control over this offense such that it doesn't get bogged down like it has for long stretches under Harbaugh. That doesn't mean Michigan's offense is destroying guys every time they step on the field, only that they have averaged about 40 yards per drive this year, which is markedly improved over last year (I don't have the number handy but it was in the 20s, I believe) and a ton more big plays than in 2017. And as I sort of expected, he's comfortable running the ball when necessary and that has added a whole new wrinkle to the rush offense that wasn't there last season.
- Higdon had another solid game; the fumble with Patterson looked like a combination of bad luck, nasty weather, and Higdon not quite getting his feet set as he came for the ball. It happens. Overall, though, he ran like a lead back should in a game like this, and was instrumental in helping Michigan to grind down MSU's defense in that second half. He had 33 yards on that 13-play, 84-yard TD drive to seal the game, and other than Tru Wilson giving him a breather for one play he was the only guy on the 7-minute drive that followed. Barring something insanely tragic, he's going to eclipse 1,000 yards in a week or two and be the first running back to do so at Michigan since Touissant. That's both depressing and encouraging, but let's focus on the latter.
Next Week: Bye!
I almost feel bad that the bye week came now; PSU tried to give the game away to IU and Michigan is rolling right now. But this will be a good break for Michigan's walk-wounded to get healthier. I don't think I'll have a column next week, but if I do it might simply be some fun stats and stories I've been tracking. Either way, my prediction for PSU is that James Franklin will continue to be the mediocre-at-best gameday coach he's been since he came to Happy Valley. PSU has enough talent to win any game, and are admittedly about a minute away from being undefeated on the year. Still, they rely so heavily on McSorley to carry their offense that he's clearly starting to scuttle a bit, and with an extra week to prepare it's hard not to expect Brown to throw a bunch of wrinkles at him. It'll be a tough game, but this weirdly always felt like the "easiest" of this three-game stretch, and I don't see that changing over next weekend.