The Michigan Wolverines (8-0, 5-0) took to the road for the second time this season, hopping on a bus and making the 65-mile trek to East Lansing where they defeated the Michigan State Spartans (2-6, 0-5) by a totally expected score of 32-23.
Michigan State drove the ball right down the field for a touchdown on their first possession, officially welcoming the Wolverines to life on the road.
Michigan bounced back and then leapt forward, grabbing a 27-10 lead at the half. It was at that point where they basically coasted the rest of the way and the Spartans made a mini-comeback with a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but the Wolverines were never in any danger in the second half.
What Michigan did find out, however, is that life on the road has its drawbacks. Teams don’t just quit because they’re thinking about the plane ride home. Michigan State had nowhere else to go, and so they fought.
That’s why my prediction for this game was Michigan 31-20. Sometimes when you go on the road, making sense isn’t always going to be an option. You have to substitute history and location for a good bit of common sense when looking at games like these.
The actual concerning item in all of this for Michigan is that Mark Dantonio’s decisions were hurting Michigan State as much as Jim Harbaugh and Don Brown’s were. The Spartans left points on the field and gave at least five points away, and couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities they had.
Of course, had they actually done those things, then I don’t think you’d see Michigan go into coast mode and I think they’d keep their cleats mashed onto the accelerator.
This was a learning experience for the Wolverines, and a bit of a wakeup call. Both of these are very good things.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines rushed for 192 yards on 42 attempts (4.6 ypc). They were led by freshman receiver Eddie McDoom’s 53 yards on two jet sweeps. Honestly, pulling a jet sweep or end around against this Michigan State team is like throwing deep when you’re up by 49 points. It borders on classless because of how unable to cope the Spartan defense is.
De’Veon Smith led the team with 11 carries, but predictably he managed just 38 yards rushing, and 20 of those yards came on just one carry. Yes, that means his other 10 carries netted him just 18 yards, which should surprise no one.
Karan Higdon looked okay carrying the ball, rushing for 44 yards on 10 carries and never losing a yard. He continues to display a quickness inside that is only going to make him more valuable as we move into November.
Jabrill Peppers rushed for 24 yards on five carries and scored a touchdown. There is no doubting his agility, as he made some ridiculous moves, but there is quite a bit of give and take when it comes to him running the ball. He might bust one for 35 yards, or he might put you at second-and-14 after a tackle in the backfield. He’s still a very worthwhile “gamble” in the running game, however.
It wasn’t the best rushing outing I’ve seen from Michigan, but 192 yards rushing is usually going to be enough to win almost any game.
In fact, not counting this season — where Michigan is “and 0” in every statistical category, the Wolverines are 16-1 since 2012 when they rush for at least 192 yards. When they don’t? They are just 14-20.
The passing game was very calm and collected for quarterback Wilson Speight. His offensive line protected him like Jim Harbaugh protects those around him at baseball games with his glove. Any time a screaming liner came at Speight, left tackle Ben Braden was there to snag it, never once dropping his beer. Or his milk. I forget how the rest of this analogy goes.
Speight had so much time to throw the ball that he could have looked over to the Michigan State sideline while dropping back just to check out random Mark Dantonio scowls.
“Hey, I haven’t seen that one before. That scowl looks like nobody asked him to homecoming. Well, back to the game, oh hey, Amara Darboh is open 40 yards down the field…but let me take one more look over at Mark first…”
Speight completed 16-of-25 passes for 244 yards with one interception and no touchdowns. The interception was a floater and obviously shouldn’t have been thrown. It’s hard to fault him, though, because the Michigan State secondary wasn’t exactly locked in.
Amara Darboh caught eight passes for 165 yards and was open all over the place, but he did most of his business down the field. I was expecting Jehu Chesson to put up some big numbers in this one because of his deep speed, but Darboh’s hands and body control were plenty to dominate this game.
As impressed as I was with the Michigan offensive line, I was even more unimpressed by MSU’s all-everything defensive lineman Malik McDowell. As a defensive end he was repeatedly pushed aside by Michigan’s linemen. And they didn’t have to push hard. He gave up almost immediately when he played end. At defensive tackle, he was slightly better. He did make some plays and shed blockers there. He looked his best lined up at the nose directly over center Mason Cole. He buckled Cole a couple of times, bending him completely over once. But I wasn’t impressed at all. Even Jake Butt pushed McDowell around.
My biggest question with the offense this week was how much of the second half lull was Michigan letting up and how much of it was Michigan State not giving up. There was certainly some of both.
When Michigan Was On Defense
For just the second time this season an opponent rushed for more than 3.4 yards a carry on the Michigan defense. Michigan State rushed for 217 yards on 42 carries (5.2 ypc), which was the second-highest total of the season against the Wolverines (UCF 46-275 6.0 ypc).
That UCF game seems like last season at this point and almost doesn’t even exist anymore. This Michigan State game, however, showed that a team that is determined to run the ball — even without a passing game — can do it with the right attack and the right running back.
L.J. Scott rushed for 139 yards on 22 carries, scoring once. He found holes, he broke tackles, and he fought for every yard. It was not a great day for the Michigan defensive line or linebackers, but Scott is a talented and frustrating opponent.
Part of Michigan’s problem was that Michigan State was effectively using the jet sweep, along with just the threat of it. Like Wisconsin does regularly, the constant action of the jet sweep causes some hesitation, and the Spartans took advantage of it.
This was just the fourth time in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure that a team has rushed for more than five yards per carry against the Wolverines. Although in the two seasons before Harbaugh arrived, it only happened three times. Two of those three games were Ohio State wins.
Despite running the ball 42 times, middle linebacker Ben Gedeon only had four tackles. Mike McCray led the linebackers with eight tackles, a sack, and 2.5 tackles for loss. Jabrill Peppers was not far behind, finishing with seven tackles, a sack, and two tackles for loss.
The most glaring thing to me is that Michigan State was one of the few teams that has been able to get their running backs into the second level, and when they got there the linebackers seemed to be caught off guard. They are generally the aggressors, but they were caught flat-footed several times in this game. Gedeon and McCray also had some trouble tackling in space.
The Wolverines faced three different quarterbacks, if that gives you any idea of how their passing game went. The string of quarterbacks that Michigan has faced this season would even make the Cleveland Browns cringe.
They held Michigan State to 182 yards passing on 13-of-28 attempts. Jourdan Lewis had an interception and the Wolverines sacked the Spartans twice. Michigan State had plenty of opportunities in the passing game, they just didn’t get the accuracy from any of their quarterbacks like they needed.
Again, I’m wondering how many of those second-half opportunities were simply due to the Wolverines checking out a bit. It happens to every team, even against a team that views them as a rival.
The Michigan Special Teams
Kenny Allen was pretty good in this game. He hit all three of his field goal attempts, including a 45-yarder in the fourth quarter. He also averaged 40.7 yards per punt on his three punts. He put three of his six kickoffs deep enough to be touchbacks.
This Michigan return game was held surprisingly in check. Jabrill Peppers had an eight-yard punt return and a 15-yard kickoff return. It was a day of solid coverage by both teams.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Michigan now knows what a true road game feels like. Eventually, they’ll even find out what it feels like to play a good team on the road. The great news for the Wolverines in this game is that they took Michigan State’s best shot in the first quarter and ended the half with a 17-point lead. It was over at that point and I think the UM players knew it.
It also means that Michigan cannot let up. Interestingly, I think this is probably the first time this particular complaint has been levied against the Wolverines this year. However, had Dantonio not lost this game first, Michigan could have very well taken their first ‘L’ of the year against the Spartans with the way they closed this one out.
Instead, the Wolverines move to 8-0 on the season and 5-0 in conference play. They have road games against Iowa and Ohio State remaining and no matter how well they play in those two games they cannot let up.
They’ll never forgive themselves if they do.
The Road to The Game
Michigan 63 – Hawaii 3
Michigan 51 – UCF 14
Michigan 45 – Colorado 28
Michigan 49 – Penn State 10
Michigan 14 – Wisconsin 7
Michigan 78 – Rutgers0
Michigan 41 – Illinois8
Michigan 32 – Michigan State 23
Michigan vs. Maryland
Michigan at Iowa
Michigan vs. Indiana
Michigan at Ohio State