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The Good, The Bad and That Play – Michigan State

October 18, 2015
Harbaugh Reacts to Final Play

Harbaugh Reacts to Final Play

Go figure that it would take the most inconceivable play I may have ever seen in football to get me back to writing.  But here I am – please excuse me if I’m a little rusty.

The Good

  • We Lived up to the Hype – Despite all of the storylines heading into the game about how Michigan was “back” and Jim Harbaugh was the savior, there was still the possibility that the 5 game run Michigan had been on was due to inferior competition and that MSU, despite their own injuries and shortcomings, was finally going to be the team that hit Michigan back.  There is no question MSU hit back, but Michigan was up to the task, and then some.  Pretty much any rational fan will agree that Michigan controlled this game and deserved to win.  Leading from start to finish, Michigan was better than MSU at pretty much everything other than a brilliantly designed trick play by MSU and half the time that Connor Cook targeted Aaron Burbridge.   But for the last play, the narrative today is how Michigan not only beat MSU, but really did so by controlling the game, even if it was a one possession game at the end.   This is a Top 10 unbeaten MSU team that has won 30 of its last 33 games, including the Cotton Bowl, the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl.  Its starting QB is 29-3 as a starter and was a pre-season Heisman candidate.  And Michigan not only went toe to toe with them, but they outplayed them for the majority of the game.  This was a team that wasn’t supposed to be able to stay on the field against this MSU team when the season started.   Our full coronation may have to wait a year, but we know exactly how we stack up to the top teams in the conference right now.  Here’s the other thing I take solace in – Sparty escaped, and they know it.  Even Mark Dantonio seemed sheepish about the win, knowing it was a gift that he probably didn’t deserve.  Are there Spartan fans who are treating this like they hit a triple despite being born on third base? Absolutely.  But they were going to be delusional anyways.  The majority of their fans knew deep down coming in that Harbaugh had this team and this program righted, and were hoping maybe they were wrong.  They weren’t wrong and now they know that.  They may not be going back to the days of John L. Smith and Bobby Williams anytime soon (though I do expect some regression), but they are quite clear that the honeymoon they enjoyed with RichRod and Hoke is very much over. 
  • The Defense – No, the defense didn’t throw its 4th straight shutout, and gave up more points and yards in this game than its previous 3 combined.  But it still was very, very good.  This was an MSU offense that had scored at least 24 points in 21 straight games, and Michigan held them to just 21 points of offense, 14 of which came on a play MSU had prepared all year to use just once.  Most importantly, with the game on the line late in the 4th quarter, the defense never allowed MSU into FG position and held Connor Cook to 3/9 passing and sacked him twice on the final two drives.  They did what an elite defense is supposed to do in those situations and made big stops.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the dominance return against Minnesota, PSU, Indiana and Rutgers.
  • Special Teams (Really) – We’ll get to the final play in a bit, but prior to the last play, the special teams had been stellar in almost every facet and was a large part of the reason we not only lead but had controlled the game.  Blake O’Neill had punted spectacularly, including an 80 yard punt early on that was downed inside the 5.   He pinned MSU inside the 10-yard line two more times and gave up a total of four (!) punt return yards all day.  Kenny Allen was just as good,  going 3/3 on FGs (including what should’ve been the winning points) and booting several kickoffs out the end zone.  Michigan also had a 34 yard punt return and a 49 yard kickoff return – both by Jabrill Peppers.  Michigan had a 23-21 lead with 10 seconds to go, and it was largely because of special teams…..(sigh).
  • Stomach Punch Loss > Apathy – Even though its horrible to lose like this and we will see this game and play replayed for years to come, I’d much rather lose like this than how we have lost the last two years against MSU where we pretty much gave up hope at halftime if not earlier.  This was a big game where Michigan was once again not only respected, but expected to win.  I’d prefer to spend my week and gamedays paying attention to a game that not only mattered, but I was confident we could win.  In fact, Michigan outplaying MSU and being the better team yet still managing to lose in the final seconds is one of the harbingers of this rivalry (see Desmond Trip in ’90 and Spartan Bob in ’01).  The planets aren’t fully in re-alignment, but they are pretty close.

The Bad

  • The Outcome – Losing the way we did is going to sting, and probably for a while.  But what really hurts is not only that we had the game in our hands for the taking, or that it was against MSU.  What bothers me is that a win yesterday likely would’ve setup an epic showdown with Ohio State after Thanksgiving for the division title at a minimum, and possibly a playoff berth.  With a game in hand against MSU and the tie breaker over them, Michigan could’ve even lost one more and still entered the OSU game knowing that a win over the Buckeyes would guarantee a trip to the Big Ten Title game in Indianapolis.  Instead, we are left rooting for MSU to lose to Nebraska and Ohio State (not all that far-fetched) and hoping that we can win out to setup that matchup with OSU.  It’s a huge step from where we were last year, but oh what could’ve been.
  • The Officiating – Hanlon’s Razor reminds us not to attribute malice to that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.  That’s my takeaway from the officiating yesterday.  I’m not sure it amounted to a coordinated effort to cheat Michigan, but it was really bad.  The most  preposterous was of course the ejection of Joe Bolden for a phantom targeting.  The fact that upon review they didn’t overturn is downright criminal.  But it wasn’t the only suspect call made all day.  In many cases, it was the lack of calls – particularly holding on the MSU offensive line – that were the most egregious.   My favorite call of the day though was in the 4th quarter after a Michigan punt was downed inside the 10.  The referee called a personal foul on Michigan and pointed towards Michigan, but then instructed his linesman to penalize MSU.  After a lengthy discussion where all the referees tried to figure out who they were really trying to call the flag on, they penalized MSU.  Go figure.  At that point it became apparent that these guys weren’t malicious, just clueless.   Sadly, their ineptitude seemed to impact the play on the field (including on the final play which I’ll explain below).
  • Offense When We Needed It – On one hand, I hesitate to criticize an offense that did enough to win the game.  23 points against an MSU defense, even one not quite as good as the last couple of years, is impressive.  But the frustrating part is that they had opportunities to really put this game away and couldn’t.  Up 20-14, Michigan started with the ball at the MSU 28 yard line after a Peppers punt return, and only managed 8 yards before kicking a field goal.  A touchdown there gives Michigan a potentially two touchdown lead with 10 minutes to go.  Earlier in the game, Michigan had 1st and Goal at the MSU 8 yard line and settled for a FG again when they could’ve pushed the lead to 24-14.   But where the offense really came up short was on its last two drives where it failed to pickup a first down on either.  The first set of downs came up short after Jehu Chesson dropped a very catchable ball that would’ve given Michigan the ball near midfield and a first down.  And while its understandable that Michigan chose to just run a simple dive play and milk the clock in the waning seconds, its disappointing that after picking up 5 yards on 1st down to setup 2nd and 5, Michigan was unable to gain the remaining 5 yards to put the game away completely.  Had Michigan been able to convert in either instance, the final play never occurs as Michigan could’ve run out the clock by taking a knee.
  • Penalties – One area that Michigan surprisingly struggled in was penalties, especially at key times.  The aforementioned 1st and Goal from the 8 yard line was negated by a holding call that turned it into 1st and Goal from the 18.   Earlier in the game, Michigan extended two MSU drives by committing penalties on 3rd Down.  The first continuation allowed MSU to drive from the 2 yard line to midfield after O’Neill’s 80 yard punt.  It flipped the field and cost Michigan valuable field position.  The second penalty, a personal foul, negated a huge 3rd down stop and a likely punt by MSU.  Instead of Michigan taking the ball up 7-0, MSU completed the drive and tied it up with a touchdown.  The penalties Michigan committed were extremely costly in this game, and somewhat uncharacteristic given the first six games.

The Play

  • The Punt – Ok, now I’m ready to talk (write) about it.  Let’s first start with this, Michigan lost the game on what amounts to an interception run back for a touchdown that was thrown by the punter.  In my 30+ years of watching football, I have never (never!) seen that happen I don’t think.  And certainly not to end a game.  It was the most preposterous play I’ve ever seen.  The only think I can think of that comes close is Garo Yapremian of the Miami Dolphins catching his blocked field goal attempt and then attempting to throw the ball.  The Washington Redskins intercepted his equally ugly pass and returned it for a touchdown.  Except in that game the Dolphins were ahead by 14 and the TD was inconsequential to the outcome.  According to ESPN, Michigan’s win percentage expectancy at that moment was 99.8%.  That means out of 1000 times, MSU wins the game only twice.  It was literally a 500-1 shot.  And frankly, that seems high to me.  Watching the replay, it literally took a perfect storm of errors by Michigan and O’Neill to create this outcome.   Even if O’Neill just falls on the ball, or throws it out-of-bounds, MSU still isn’t in field goal range and is left with a one play Hail Mary to try and score.  If the ball stays on the ground and just gets kicked around a bit, it’s even possible time runs out.  If one of the Michigan defenders manages to catch up to Jalen Watts Jackson and tackles him, time probably runs out and Michigan still wins.  And even if Jackson ran it 15 yards to put MSU in field goal position with 1 second to play, MSU’s kicker has been unreliable all year and was kicking into a stiff swirling wind.  Instead, O’Neill manages to drop the snap, pick it up and throw it directly into the hands of Watts-Jackson who is running in the direction of the end zone already and doesn’t even have to break stride.  Forget Kordell Stewart, forget Auburn-Alabama and the kickoff return, even forget Doug Flutie – this is the most inconceivable finish to a football game perhaps ever.  The only exception might be the Stanford/Cal The Band is on The Field game – and that’s because the Stanford band was literally on the field!
  • One Thing Not Discussed Enough – One thing not discussed enough on the last play is the way in which the MSU line tees off on our longsnapper.  The rule in college football is that you have to give the longsnapper 3 steps before you hit him since his head is down and he is an unprotected player.  Its a safety rule and one that has been enforced a decent amount recently.   Go watch the replay and see how our longsnapper gets obliterated by the MSU line.  Now you can say that there is no way the refs are calling that penalty in that situation, but that is precisely why they should – MSU has no incentive not to commit that penalty there. If they think they are almost certain to lose, why not see if you can get away with it at that juncture?  If its 4th and 5 early in the game, it extends a drive.  Here, the worst thing that can happen is that it gives Michigan a first down and ends the game, but that’s about the same odds as Hail Mary from at best your own 20 yard line.  Teeing off on the longsnapper is the smart play here. For an officiating crew that spent so much time focusing on a bogus targeting call in the name of safety, it was a horribly missed call.  I’m not sure it even impacted the punt drop or ensuing play, but if the point is to protect the player, the refs failed.
  • It Was Just a Fluke – Anyone saying that Michigan should’ve lined up differently and had a safety valve behind the punter is off base in my opinion.  As is anyone saying Michigan should’ve gone for it.  Michigan played it exactly how they should have – line up for a regular punt and let the guy who has been absolutely killing it for you go do his thing.  O’Neill had given the staff no reason to think that he wouldn’t come through in this situation, and if he doesn’t drop the snap, he probably drops the punt inside the 5 yard line again.  It was a fluky play that just happened – no hindsight would’ve changed that.

 

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