Little brother is back, and he looks like an annoying pain in the ass again.
Michigan State went into Ann Arbor and outraced a monsoon to a 14-3 lead at the half against Michigan, and then battened down the hatches in the second half, withstanding win, rain, and pretty much nothing of any substance from the Wolverines on their way to a 14-10 upset win over Michigan.
The Wolverines fell to 4-1 (1-1) on the season and Michigan State moved to 4-1 (2-0).
After the game, Mark Dantonio said the Spartans were going to have a bus ride home unlike any other, but this is the fourth time in five attempts that MSU rode home as victors, so how different could it have actually been?
Michigan had a bye week to prepare for a Michigan State offense that hasn’t really changed since 2007, but the problem wasn’t the UM defense, it was the UM offense. Which, like the victorious MSU bus ride home, is not all that unusual anymore either.
This loss was a punch in the gut for a Wolverine team that came into the game with national title hopes and left the game wondering if they have an offense that can score against Indiana.
Head coaches earn their money by keeping one bad game from turning into two bad games, but road trips to Indiana and Penn State over the next two weeks could make that more difficult than Jim Harbaugh would like.
Every championship team must overcome adversity at some point, but I don’t know if Michigan’s offense is up to the task.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines managed just 300 yards of total offense against a Michigan State defense that has been pretty good this season. They were helped by terrible weather in the second half, but the Wolverine offense scored just three points while the wind and rain were cooperating.
Michigan rushed for 102 yards and passed for 198. The rushing yards came on 39 attempts, which gave UM a 2.6-yard-per-carry average. That’s not going to win you a game. In fact, when Michigan averages 2.6 yards per carry or less, they have gone 2-20 over the last decade. They moved to 0-6 with that number under Harbaugh.
For comparison’s sake, Ohio State hasn’t been held to 2.6 yards per carry in a game since 2011 — also known as “the Luke Fickell year.” The Buckeyes have been held to under three yards per carry just twice under Meyer — both ended up as losses. In that same span, Michigan has been held under three yards per carry 20 times.
Karan Higdon got the start at running back for the Wolverines and right now he is by far their best runner. He rushed for 65 yards on 12 carries and is the only guy who can successfully drive his legs through a tackler.
If you took the numbers off of the Michigan running back jerseys and just watched them run, you’d still have no problem knowing who had the ball. Higdon is the guy who keeps fighting for yards. Ty Isaac is the guy who just leans forward and doesn’t bother driving his legs. Chris Evans is the guy who would love to keep running, but a random arm grabbed him and now he has been tackled.
Isaac looked so good early in the season, but he needed room to do it. In Big Ten play (two games), he now has 14 carries for 29 yards. He also had a bad fumble against Michigan State as a Spartan just took a basic rip at the ball and came away with it.
Running backs are sometimes described as “determined”, but Isaac is more of a polite runner right now. He doesn’t want to make waves. He just wants to go with the flow, which is not going to work when the offensive line can’t actually provide any of the necessary flow.
When an offensive line is struggling, they need a runner who is willing to fight for every yard, because that’s the only way you’re going to get the yards you need. Right now they only have one guy who can do that, and I’m not sure if he can handle the kind of a workload that this offense might need.
The worrisome part is that the running game might be in a better spot than the passing game.
Quarterback John O’Korn started this game for the Wolverines as starter Wilton Speight is currently bothered by a nasty case of broken vertebrae. O’Korn played most of Michigan’s last game against Purdue, so he didn’t come into this game cold or stiff.
Saturday was the 21st time in O’Korn’s career that he has thrown at least 10 passes in a game and it was the tenth time he failed to complete at least half of his pass attempts.
O’Korn completed 16-of-35 attempts for 198 yards with three interceptions and he was sacked four times.
During our pregame show prior to Maryland at Ohio State, I said whichever quarterback rushed for more yards in this game would likely be the victor. Both O’Korn and Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke are talented enough runners to make life difficult for defenses, but that didn’t happen in this one against the Spartans. O’Korn rushed for 24 yards, but lost 33 more via sacks. Lewerke, meanwhile, went unsacked and rushed for a team-high 61 yards.
All three of O’Korn’s interceptions were bad. The worst part is that two of the best pockets he sat in led to two of the interceptions on bad overthrows.
Rain or shine, this is who O’Korn is. If you’re a quarterback coach, he has enough ability to intrigue you, and enough inconsistency to get you fired.
The weather was absolutely a factor, but he didn’t do much to help himself. He also didn’t get much help from his receivers.
Losing Tarik Black last month was a big blow. The box score will tell you that Donovan Peoples-Jones had zero catches, but they targeted him five times, which is one of those problems that you run into when you have a freshman wide receiver starting.
At no point in this game was the Spartan defense on its heels. They attacked when they wanted to and sat back when they needed to. There was never any concern about the Michigan offense. The longest drive for the Wolverines was 64 yards, which was the first drive — which is generally the scripted drive. After that, the longest drive was 43 yards, and that was the final drive of the game when MSU’s defense was sitting back in a prevent.
Michigan’s lone touchdown drive went just 33 yards.
After the game, Mark Dantonio said the Wolverines ran 40 different formations in the first half, which would mean a different formation for every single one of the 40 plays that Michigan ran in the first half. Perhaps he meant they didn’t run the same formation in consecutive plays. Regardless, it turned out to be a whole lot of this.
Michigan ran 40 different formations in the first half against Michigan State and scored three points. pic.twitter.com/V5iSZvDOTy
— Tony Gerdeman (@TonyGerdeman) October 8, 2017
As the numbers allude, the offensive line did not have a good night. Right tackle Nolan Ulizio was finally benched in favor of Juwann Bushell-Beatty, who didn’t fare much better. Left tackle Mason Cole has not been the anchor that many were expecting.
When Michigan Was On Defense
The Michigan defense did everything necessary to win the game. The Wolverines turned the ball over five times and the Spartans could only turn it into seven points. Those seven points came on a 46-yard drive following Ty Isaac’s fumble. That drive was also helped by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on middle linebacker Devin Bush.
Following the other four turnovers, Michigan State’s offense managed just 15 total yards against UM’s quick-change defense. That’s a product of weather, Dinoball, and Michigan’s defense, and not necessarily in that order.
Disappointingly, Michigan State was able to run for 158 yards on 40 attempts (4.0 ypc), with 50 of those yards coming on a Madre London carry in the second quarter that got MSU out of field position trouble.
Michigan State was without their best running back in L.J. Scott, which makes that 158 yards even more of a disappointment.
The Spartans rushed for 46 yards in the second half and threw for just 20 yards. They were sitting on a lead and were completely confident that the Wolverine offense didn’t have two touchdowns in them to win it. And they were right.
Michigan State passed for 94 yards and went 2-of-14 on third-down conversions. They did manage to score touchdowns on both of their trips into the red zone, however.
The Wolverines never sacked Brian Lewerke, and only pressured him a couple of times. He was able to get outside the pocket at times and also stepped up into voids in the middle to pick up extra yards.
When you watch Michigan play, there are times when you can tell the opposing offense is basically looking from side to side trying to figure out where the blitzes are going to come from, and not that you can see their eyes, but if you could, you know they’d be all over the place with a mix of worry and confusion. That was never the case for MSU’s offense. They handled the blitzes when they came and never panicked.
Michigan only managed five tackles for loss, and just one of them came from a linebacker. It was the first time this season they didn’t have at least seven tackles for loss. And this was against an offense (without its best running back) that spent an entire half just trying to get to a fourth down without error so that they could stop having possession of the football.
When a team needs the defense to score, they need help from the opponent. If that opponent is fine with running and punting, forcing turnovers isn’t going to be easy to do.
That’s why most teams instead choose to score with their offense.
The Michigan Special Teams
There was nothing special here, which is a compliment compared to what the Ohio State special teams fielded this past weekend. The biggest concern here is that punter Brad Robbins only put two of his seven punts inside the 20.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Tresselball is still pretty damn effective against the Michigan Wolverines.
Mark Dantonio packed it in for the final 30 minutes and sweatervested his way to another win in this rivalry. He came into the game confident, but he left it cocky.
It also means that John O’Korn isn’t the answer. But with this defense, he doesn’t need to be the answer. He just needs to be an answer. Against Michigan State, however, he was neither. Instead, he was part of the problem.
One of the beliefs that I had when Jim Harbaugh was hired was that he would get the most out of his players. If that is happening right now, then there are at least three more losses on this schedule.
I don’t believe this team has maxed out yet, though.
There will still be games where the offense throws up 42 points, but the problem is that there will be no idea how to duplicate it the next week. At any point, the running game can disappear completely and the passing game can turn into an opposing defense’s best friend.
The bottom line with the Wolverines is that the defense will keep them in every game this year, but it will be up to the offense not to take them out of it.
The Road to The Game
Sept. 2 Michigan 33 – Florida 17
Sept. 9 Michigan 36 – Cincinnati 14
Sept. 16 Michigan 29 – Air Force 13
Sept. 23 Michigan 28 – Purdue 10
Sept. 30 BYE
Oct. 7 Michigan State 14 – Michigan 10
Oct. 14 Michigan at Indiana
Oct. 21 Michigan at Penn State
Oct. 28 Rutgers at Michigan (Rivalry Game)
Nov. 4 Minnesota at Michigan
Nov. 11 Michigan at Maryland
Nov. 18 Michigan at Wisconsin
Nov. 25 Ohio State at Michigan