Michigan went into East Lansing and played a very good game for about three quarters. They led 30-14 late in the third quarter but couldn’t hold on to the lead, allowing Michigan State to go on a 23-3 run over the game’s final 19 minutes in the Spartans’ 37-33 win over the formerly unbeaten Wolverines.
With the win, Michigan State moved to 8-0 on the season and Michigan moved to their customary feeling of disbelief and stupefaction at the unrelenting pain that college football never fails to provide.
The Wolverines left the field on Saturday wondering what happened. I’d say they were in denial but it’s never denial when the reaction is “Here we go again.”
The Wolverines may be “the leaders and best,” but what good is leading if there is no finishing?
Jim Harbaugh had everything going for him during this game (aside from the refs) but Mel Tucker and his Spartans never stopped fighting. They never submitted and it almost seemed like Michigan was caught off by Michigan State’s unwillingness to know their place.
Chalking this one up to hubris, however, would be giving Michigan too much credit.
When the game was on the line the Spartans walked it, talked it, and took it.
And now Michigan has to collect themselves and not let one loss dictate the rest of what can still be a fantastic season.
But as we also saw, there are flaws on this Wolverine team and teams that can take advantage of those flaws are going to have a great chance of making Michigan just as miserable as the Spartans did.
When Michigan Was On Offense
For the first time since 2018, Michigan posted over 500 yards of total offense against a Power 5 opponent.
(Ohio State has had 26 games of 500 yards of total offense against Power 5 opponents over the last four seasons, if anybody is counting.)
The Wolverines rushed for 146 yards on 34 attempts (4.3 ypc) but never really got anything going. Instead, Jim Harbaugh relied on his quarterback and Cade McNamara rewarded him with 383 yards through the air on 28-of-44 passing. McNamara threw two touchdowns and a game-ending interception.
Despite the ending, this was McNamara’s best game as a Wolverine. He was decisive and made throws from all kinds of arm angles.
But the interception at the end of the game was in the air a long time. Michigan State defensive back Charles Brantley made an incredible one-handed interception down the sideline, which was undoubtedly the best one-handed sideline interception in this rivalry’s history.
I didn’t chart how far McNamara was throwing the ball downfield in this one because it didn’t feel necessary. There were still plenty of short passes but the passing game wasn’t the issue. Although it was disappointing to see McNamara have a free play on an offside call and not throw the ball up for a receiver and instead scramble and throw an intermediate incompletion earlier in the game. Any opportunity for free yards in a close game needs to be taken advantage of, so that was not a great play on his part.
But that’s also nitpicking.
Freshman JJ McCarthy got into the game a few times as a running threat and also as a red-zone quarterback. He did throw a touchdown pass to freshman Andrel Anthony, so that was great to see. What wasn’t great to see were his two fumbles in the fourth quarter.
The first one came on a run with the game tied 30-30 and Michigan was fortunate not to lose possession. The second came with Michigan leading 33-30 with seven minutes remaining in the game. With McNamara in the injury tent for some reason, McCarthy tried to hand the ball off to Blake Corum but Corum didn’t clamp down on the ball or McCarthy didn’t let go of the ball in time. Corum sure seemed to think it was a read play but McCarthy wasn’t reading anything because he was turning his back to the play after the hand-off.
Quarterbacks usually get the blame on fumbles at the mesh point but somebody sure seemed wrong about what the play actually was. And that was one play after receiver AJ Henning muffed and recovered a punt.
Was this all a matter of Michigan simply puckering at the end? The Spartans, meanwhile, scored the winning touchdown just a few plays later.
I’m not going to harp too much on the odd quarterback substitutions because it kind of works. Also, I don’t think the “ruining the rhythm of the offense” argument works here because Michigan doesn’t have any rhythm to its offense.
One huge positive that came out of this game was the surprise emergence of true freshman receiver Andrel Anthony. He was a 3-star receiver from East Lansing that chose Michigan over Arkansas and others, and this was his breakout performance. His first reception of the season was a 93-yard catch-and-run touchdown on a slant against the Spartan secondary. He finished the day with 6 catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns. I don’t know if he is this year’s version of Ricky White, but I hope not. It will be interesting to see if he fades back onto the sideline or is now a fixture on the field.
Tight end Erick All is going to be a problem for the Buckeyes, just so everybody knows. He caught 10 passes for 98 yards against Michigan State and is a valuable outlet or one-on-one advantage against linebackers. He’s always been big and athletic, but now when the ball finds him, he secures it and picks up yards.
Turning to the running game, identities are being revealed and nobody’s really surprised who’s actually under the mask.
Michigan still leads the Big Ten in rushing at 239.9 yards per game, but in conference games only, that average drops down to 173.6 yards, and their yards per carry falls from 5.2 to 4.1.
Hassan Haskins rushed for 59 yards on 14 carries with a long of 24. Blake Corum managed 45 yards on 13 carries. Of their combined 27 carries, 14 went for 2 yards or less. Only six of those rushes went for more than 5 yards.
Michigan State has a solid run defense, but this was closer to the real Michigan running game than anything we saw in the non-conference. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis did a nice job of adjusting to the passing game in this one, but I just wonder if Cade McNamara would have been more prepared to handle a game-winning drive if he had actually been allowed to test his arm out a bit more throughout the year.
Overall, Michigan made it into the red zone six times and only scored touchdowns twice. While we can all point at the refs for missing a Kenneth Walker fumble at the goal line or a Payton Thorne fumble that was recovered for a Michigan touchdown and then overturned, don’t lose sight of the Wolverines’ struggles in the red zone as a much larger reason for this loss.
Those issues don’t just generally go away. This is the second time in three games that Michigan has gone 2-of-6 in the red zone with touchdowns. In fact, this is now three weeks in a row that they have failed to score touchdowns in the red zone at least three times in a game.
The Wolverines have four more red zone field goals than anybody else in the Big Ten and only Colorado State has more nationally. In Big Ten games, Michigan is in the bottom half of the conference, converting just 46.2% of their red zone trips into touchdowns.
When Michigan Was On Defense
This was Kenneth Walker’s game to win and he didn’t leave any chances for Michigan to take it away from him.
The Michigan State running back was fantastic, rushing for 197 yards and five touchdowns. He averaged 8.6 yards per carry on his 23 attempts. Even when Michigan bottled him up, he ended up breaking that bottle and cutting dudes down to the bone.
For the game, MSU rushed for 199 yards on 36 attempts (5.5 ypc) and quarterback Payton Thorne threw for 196 yards on 19-of-30 passing. He threw two interceptions and was sacked three times. Both of his interceptions were early in the game, however, and the Spartans were able to overcome them down the stretch.
Michigan’s defense opened with six defensive linemen and one linebacker. It lasted about three plays. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald threw a bunch of different alignments at Michigan State and some of it worked and some of it didn’t.
But what really didn’t work for the Michigan defense was the the up-tempo offense that Michigan State would spring on them at times. There was a handful of illegal substitution calls and some offside penalties because players weren’t lined up. Here’s one play for instance. The ball has already been snapped.
This was not Macdonald’s best day. He was caught substituting a number of times by tempo — and this has never really been a defense that handles tempo well, even without way-too-late substitutions.
I can appreciate that Macdonald has to do a lot of different things with the scheme to try and make up for a lack of talent and depth, but he was actively hurting the defense with his substitutions. It felt like he was trying to do too much. Greg Schiano used to do the same thing at Ohio State. Perhaps it’s the NFL that has them thinking they have answers for everything and the time to get those answers on the field.
The reality is that nobody has answers for everything, nor the amount of time necessary to try and put the best possible foot forward on every single play. That’s where versatility helps and having five or six defensive linemen on the field doesn’t exactly lend itself to being versatility.
And when you have a 5-1-5 alignment late in the game, don’t be surprised when Kenneth Walker blasts through the line of scrimmage untouched and races 23 yards for the game winner.
Michigan finally met up with one of the Big Ten’s best offenses and they lost. They still got outstanding play from a number of guys, including pass rushers David Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson. Ojabo forced two fumbles, though only one was called.
Yeah, the refs probably screwed Michigan, but they had a 16-point lead in the third quarter. It’s not like the Wolverines are blameless.
But I do need to credit Michigan State as well. They were 2-for-2 on fourth-down conversions and both of those fourth downs were converted via downfield passes. Both drives ended in touchdowns. They executed. The took the game from Michigan’s defense and even though Hutchinson and Ojabo were great, they didn’t have enough help around them to save this one.
The Michigan Special Teams
Michigan had the special teams advantage going into this game and it was one of the reasons why I liked the Wolverines to beat Michigan State. They have been outstanding all season long, but did have a slip up on a punt when Brad Robbins had trouble with the snap and ended up trying to run for a first down. He was a yard short but there wasn’t too much damage done because Michigan State ended up losing 13 yards on the ensuing drive.
Kicker Jake Moody made all four of his field goal attempts, with the long being just 38 yards.
Robbins successfully punted twice, putting both punts inside the MSU 20-yard line. Michigan has only allowed four punt returns this season, which is tied with Ohio State for the fewest in the Big Ten.
What Does It All Mean
It means that the college football gods are some sadistic bastards. Michigan was having a season that fans weren’t necessarily expecting, but certainly hoping would happen.
Not only did they get that season for the first seven games, but they led by 16 points late in the third quarter of game number eight. They were 20 minutes away from being 8-0 for the first time since 2016.
And then what so many people were expecting finally happened. They lost. Many fans couldn’t even enjoy the season because they were simply waiting for this to happen. Then to happen in the manner it did was even more cruel. The glimmer of hope was shining like a beacon until it was snuffed out like Fielding Yost’s bedside candle.
Some people couldn’t appreciate the ride because they knew they’d end up in a ditch at some point.
The ride isn’t over, however. This was one game. And it was a game that Michigan gave away. They were on their way to beating another tough Big Ten opponent by double digits on the road. That’s not nothing.
But there are issues and those issues are likely to show up again this season.
The reality is that Michigan was outschemed, outfought, and outplayed.
Michigan State got the benefit of almost every 50/50 call from the refs, there’s little doubt. But when both teams needed to make plays with the game on the line, it was the Spartans connecting on key fourth downs. It was the Spartans drawing penalties on a Michigan defense that was being exploited. It was Michigan putting the ball on the ground twice in the fourth quarter and dealing the game-clinching interception to the opponent.
Michigan had opportunities to win this game but they couldn’t do it. Even worse, they had opportunities to simply not lose this game and they couldn’t do that either.
It also means that now comes the part where Jim Harbaugh has to rally the troops with more words than he was able to offer up to reporters after the game.
This has not been a typical Michigan season. Nearly everything they want is still out in front of them. But even more important than that, this is an opportunity to show everyone that this Michigan program is on solid footing. People may have been waiting for a loss, but guess what, Clemson, Alabama, and Ohio State all have losses as well.
Can the Wolverines regroup and win out? Maybe. Do you see an unbeatable team remaining on their schedule?
If they do win out, this will be the best Michigan season in nearly 25 years and it should be celebrated.
Or they could lose three of their final five regular season games and confirm an awful lot of suspicions from around the nation and among their fan base.
And then we’ll get to do this all over again next year.
The Road To The Game
Sept 4 – Michigan 47 – Western Michigan 14 (1-0)
Sept 11 – Michigan 31 – Washington 10 (2-0)
Sept 18 – Michigan 63 – Northern Illinois 10 (3-0)
Sept 25 – Michigan 20 – Rutgers 13 (4-0, 1-0)
Oct 2 – Michigan 38 – Wisconsin 17 (5-0, 2-0)
Oct 9 – Michigan 32 – Nebraska 29 (6-0, 3-0)
Oct 23 – Michigan 33 – Northwestern 7 (7-0, 3-0)
Oct 30 – Michigan State 37 – Michigan 33 (7-1, 3-1)
Nov 6 vs Indiana
Nov 13 at Penn State
Nov 20 at Maryland
Nov 27 vs Ohio State