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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Michigan State

October 18, 2011

The Good

  • The Defense in General – This defense is certainly not flawless, and they didn’t have a standout day on Saturday.  But, they did their job.  The held MSU to 330 yards and 21 points, forced 2 turnovers, and kept us in the game while the offense sputtered.  With 6:30 minutes to go, we had the ball down by 7, despite only putting up 200 yards of offense up to that point.  While the defense could have been better, they gave us a chance to win.  The defense kept MSU pinned inside their own 25 yard line for most of the 2nd quarter, but the offense was unable to capitalize on great field position.  The defense forced MSU to go 3 and out 3 times, and forced fumbles on the first play of two different series.  They didn’t shut MSU down, but they certainly played well enough for us to win. 
  • Special Teams – One of my biggest concerns going into this game was that our punting unit or Special Teams was going to cost us a big play.  On the contrary, they played very well.  Special mention goes to Will Hagerup who pinned MSU deep several times and made them play with a long field for most of the day.  Had the offense been able to do anything with the good field position, this might have been a different outcome.  The one hiccup was the kickoff to start the 2nd half, which gave MSU great field position and enabled them to score the go-ahead touchdown.
  • We’re Just Getting Started – Sure Saturday’s loss to MSU sucked. And it sucks even more that we have to wait another week to play.  But here’s the good news – unless something goes drastically wrong against Purdue, in two weeks we should be 7-1, 3-1 in conference, in all likelihood tied for the division lead (unless Sparty does something shocking the next 2 weeks and beats both Wisconsin and Nebraska).  Plus,  our toughest game (@MSU) will be behind us.  How many of us thought we’d be that far along in Year 1 of the Hoke era?  This team still probably has too many flaws for us to legitimately complete for the Big Ten title, but I think we may head into the last two games of the season with the ability to control our own destiny. 

The Bad

  • Playcalling – For the first time all season, I’m ready to toss Gorgeous Al Borges into my doghouse, because I was not a fan of the playcalling on Saturday.  Generally, I felt like we played right into MSU’s hands by throwing downfield when they loaded the box with 8 players and forced us to pass.  While the running game wasn’t shredding MSU, it was effective enough that we should have given our running backs more than 10 carries combined.   In 8 carries, Vincent Smith picked up 37 yards – an average of 4.6 yards per carry.  And though Denard only finished with 42 yards rushing according to the box score, he actually picked up 76 rushing, but was sacked 4 times for 34 yards an average of 5.4 yards per carry.  MSU has done a better job in two seasons containing Denard rushing than anyone I’ve seen,  but he is still capable of picking 3-4 yards almost anytime he wants to.  Speaking of which, we can’t discuss playcalling without addressing the call that in my opinion cost us the ball game.  With just over 6;30 to go in the game, Michigan faced a 4th and inches at the MSU 9 yard line trailing by just a touchdown.  They had battled back from a 21-7 deficit, and I firmly believe that had they scored a touchdown here, they would have gone on to win the game.  For reasons I still don’t understand, Al Borges chose this moment to get fancy.  Instead of allowing Denard to run a QB keeper, or even a sneak (MSU didn’t even cover the center!), he went with a play action fake that fooled some, but not MSU safety Johnny Adams, who blitzed and tackled Denard before he could even lookup field to throw.  It was the worst decision I’ve seen since Gary Moeller handed the ball to Tim Biakabatuka 6 yards behind the line of scrimmage on 3rd and inches in 1994 against Penn State when we driving to try and tie the game at 31 late in the 4th.  Biakabatuka was stopped for a 2 yard loss, we didn’t convert on 4th down, and we lost the game.  Borges call was ill-advised for 2 reasons.  First of all, in that situation, just pick up the first down.  If you can’t pick up 1 foot,  you don’t deserve to win anyways.  Second of all, don’t ask your QB to do something that he’s struggled with all day.  Even if Adams doesn’t blitz and Denard has time to throw, its not a guaranteed completion.  Denard had been missing wide open receivers all day long – who is to say he wouldn’t have misfied again?  In short, Borges over thought the decision, and it may have cost us the game.
  • Rush Defense – Giving up 200+ yards rushing is never a good thing.  When you do it against a patchwork offensive line that previously was only picking up 128 yards per game against the likes of Youngstown State, Central Michigan and Florida Atlantic among others, you’re in trouble.  I honestly expected Michigan to control the line of scrimmage on defense, and am shocked that they were actually significantly outplayed.  And make no mistake, they were.  Michigan was solid up the middle for the most part as Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen were serviceable.  But neither was disruptive save for 1-2 plays.  And they were our strength.  Northwestern proved that we are very susceptible against the run on the edge due to poor linebacker play and undersized defensive ends, and MSU exploited that, with Edwin Baker running off tackle all day long, picking up chunks of yards in 7-10 yard increments.  Even managing a draw on this matchup may have led us to victory  on Saturday as MSU only managed to move the ball when they could run.  It was the biggest surprise of the game for me that we lost the battle on the defensive line of scrimmage. 
  • Denard Robinson – On Friday, I opined that if Denard Robinson could successfully throw the ball, Michigan couldn’t be beaten.  The addendum to that should have been – and if he can’t throw it, Michigan can’t win. MSU made it clear very early on that they were going to force Denard to beat them with his arm, and not his feet, by loading the box with 9 guys and daring Denard to throw.  With the exception of 1-2 throws he made, including his touchdown to Roy Roundtree, Denard was abysmal.  He missed seeing open receivers, threw to covered receivers, and airmailed several throws to receivers who were open.  Part of the blame goes to the offensive line, who gave him no time to throw for most of the day.  Part of the blame goes to Al Borges, who didn’t put him in positions to succeed.  But a good chunk of the blame goes to Denard, who failed to make good throws even when he had the chance.  And then he capped it off by getting flustered and throwing an interception that MSU returned for a touchdown to ice the game.  Since the first game of the season its been apparent that this team will go as far as Denard Robinson’s arm can take them.  Saturday, it wasn’t enough.
  • Red Zone Defense – One of the things Michigan has held its hat on earlier this season was keeping other teams out of the end zone when they got into the red zone.  Whether it was a field goal, a missed field goal or a tunrover, Michigan didn’t just concede the end zone once a team got close like they had in years past.  Saturday, MSU was 3/3 in the red zone, with all 3 scores being touchdowns.  Twice, Michigan appeared to have MSU stopped short of a first down or a touchdown which would have forced a field goal attempt, but couldn’t make the final tackle.  Even turning one of those touchdowns into a field goal attempt completely changes the way this game plays out.  And given the way the winds were swirling, nothing was going to be automatic in the kicking game.  Just one or two tackles probably would have made the difference, but we couldn’t come up with them. 
  • Missed Opportunities – If you’re looking for a depressing “what if” fact from Saturday, try this one on for size.  Beginning after Michigan’s first touchdown drive and extending until its second touchdown with just over 9 minutes left in the 4th quarter, Michigan ran 32(!) plays in MSU territory without coming away with any points.  Michigan had 5 drives that moved the ball inside the MSU 40 yard line reaching the 24, 32, 36, 37, and 39 yard lines on separate occasions, and came away with zero points.  They also got to the MSU 43 on another insistence and blew the opportunity inside the MSU 10 on the 4th and 1 play later on in the game.  Basically, they lived in MSU territory but couldn’t do anything with it.  On a couple of occasions, wide open players were missed streaking down the field, and in others, just a different read  or blitz pickup would have converted the first down and kept the drives alive.  MSU deserves credit for their defense stepping up when they had to, but Michigan left a lot of potential points on the board that they are going to be sick about in the film room.  And for what its worth, while part of this should be blamed on execution, I didn’t think the playcalling in these situations set us up to succeed.  A couple of times Michigan was facing a 3rd and middle distance (4-5 yards) on these drives and instead of running Denard to try and make it 4th and short or even pickup the first down, we dropped back to pass and got sacked, or didn’t complete the pass and had to punt.  As good as MSU’s defense was, I believe Denard can pick up 3-4 yards on almost every play with his acceleration.  In two plays, 4-5 yards shouldn’t have been a problem. Had we converted a couple of those, I think we’re talking about a different outcome as well.   
  • The Referees – I thought the referees on Saturday were horrible.  They missed several calls on both sides of the ball that impacted the game.  The most egregious of these errors occurred twice, both on the same type of play.  MSU twice ran a screen pass to a wide receiver where the QB throws the ball parallel to the line of scrimmage.  In both instances Kirk Cousins clearly threw the ball backwards, creating a lateral.  In those circumstances, if the ball isn’t caught, its a fumble.  The first time, the ball went harmlessly out of bounds and should have been a 2 yard loss for MSU, but the refs called an incomplete pass.  The 2nd time, the ball landed on the field of play, and as a Michigan player picked it up, the referees blew the play dead.  Had it properly been called a live ball, as it was clearly a lateral to almost anyone not wearing stripes or bronze and green, Michigan probably would have been able to run it back for a touchdown, as there was nobody around but white jerseys.  MSU instead took that drive in for a score to stretch the lead to 21-7, when it could have been 14-14.  The other obvious referee fail was not ejecting William Gholston for his punch to Taylor Lewan’s head.  The referee called a 15 yard penalty, but chose not to eject Gholston even though a punch is an automatic ejection.  If he saw the punch, which he did because he threw the flag, then Gholston should have been ejected. I still don’t understand it.  I thought Michigan also benefitted from a very generous spot on the fake field goal on their first drive that Michigan turned into a touchdown.  Overall, a pretty poor day for the refs.

The Ugly

  • Offensive Line – This is one of those games where you don’t need to look at tape to know the offensive line was bad.  7 sacks, multiple hurries, and only 82 yards rushing pretty much tell the story.  Michigan was overmatched for most of the game and was incapable of getting enough of a push to establish an effective running game or to give Denard enough time to find receivers.  Michigan did not do a good job of picking up blitzes for most of the game and their communication was pretty bad too.  This seems to be the story of this offensive line this year – Taylor Lewan and David Molk are pretty good, but the rest of the line is struggling.  To be fair, they are blocking in a new scheme, and most of them aren’t big enough or strong enough to be maulers the way Hoke wants them to be.  But they have some serious work to do in the bye week if they want to compete against the better defenses in the Big Ten. 
  • The Uniforms – We’ve known for 2 months that MSU planned to roll out some horrendous uniforms for today’s game.  Their “Spartan” uniforms included black and bronze, two colors not normally part of MSU’s color palate.  They looked more like South Florida than MSU.  But then Michigan came out in our modified “Legends” look that appeared to be the photo negative of our jerseys against Notre Dame.  Together, we looked ridiculous.  Michigan’s were slightly better since we stayed with our colors, but neither team did themselves any favors.  I know Nike and Adidas are looking for ways to sell more product, and they pay millions of dollars a year to be associated with schools like MSU and Michigan, but they are ruining college football.
  • Michigan State Thuggery – For better or worse, a good part of what’s dominated the post game discussion has been focused on some of the “tactics” employed by MSU during the game.  These tactics included William Gholston trying to break Taylor Lewan’s arm on the first play of the game, then punching him in the head later on, and then hitting Denard Robinson late and twisting his facemask in a violent fashion while Denard was on the ground under the pile.  For the video highlights, go here.  But Gholston wasn’t the only offender, as Robinson was repeatedly hit after the whistle, including a bodyslam from Marcus Rush, who was flagged for 15 yards and then applauded by his teammates and coaches.  In short, MSU’s play was nothing short of thuggish.  I’m proud of Michigan for not responding, and wondering how they didn’t lose their cool and slug somebody.  And to top off their classless afternoon, at the conclusion of the game, MSU players ran around waving 4 fingers in the face of Michigan players to commemorate their 4th win in a row over the Wolverines.  The icing on the cake was defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi stating in his postgame press conference that MSU wants to play “60 minutes of unncessary roughness” which basically condones all of the thuggish actions by MSU.  It’s nothing surprising at this point.  Anyone who has paid attention to Mark Dantonio over the last couple of years knows that he is willing to win at any cost – including reinstating players who beatdown an MSU hockey player so badly they sent him to the hospital and ended his career; reinstating players who ran through a dorm wearing ski masks to avenge a scuffle over a girl in a bar the night before; and allowing a player back on the team who was involved in a computer theft ring.  The man is without any moral compass, and it shows on the field.  As for Michigan, sure, we need to toughen up a little bit and play with a meaner streak, but what happened on Saturday was inexcusable and I hope the Big Ten office takes notice.
  • Balance of the Rivalry – At this point its impossible to deny that MSU has taken control of this rivalry.  Even if we won 6 in a row ourselves, MSU has beaten us the last 4 years, something they haven’t done in basically 50 years.  Its gotten ugly for Michigan because MSU has made it clear they aren’t going away.  For Michigan, and Michigan fans, its another 365 days of waiting before we get a chance to put Sparty back in their place.  In some ways this is good for the rivalry, because for so long it really wasn’t one with Michigan winning 75% of the time.   Between the taunting, the comments from Dantonio throughout the year, and the dirty play on Saturday, MSU has gotten our attention.  I was hoping this would be the year that we righted the ship, but I know that Brady Hoke, Dave Brandon, and the rest of the Michigan team will be waiting in the tall grass for MSU next year.
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