Both teams likely left Spartan Stadium with mixed emotions after Saturday’s game.
Michigan (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) came out with a 32-23 victory, and you could definitely see the pride it took when hugs and backflips followed the final whistle. Still, the Wolverines couldn’t have been satisfied with how the game ultimately stayed within striking distance despite all the opportunities for them to put it away.
Conversely, Michigan State (2-6, 0-5) may have incurred the same result as in weeks past, but the game did not end the same way. Instead, Coach Mark Dantonio’s team fought back with an energy that had seemed absent during past fourth quarters.
Michigan State won’t be satisfied with just a solid performance relative to the rest of the season. The Spartans don’t take moral victories, as Dantonio made sure to emphasize after the game. The media and fans have to take them for him.
Looking back, why was Michigan able to take this victory? What did the Wolverines do well that allowed them to pull away from their in-state rivals? And what did Michigan State pull off to turn things around a bit and make this a respectable result?
Let’s take a look.
The running game
Michigan State actually finished with the upper hand here, gaining 217 yards on the ground to Michigan’s 192. LJ Scott had another very strong day with 139 yards on 22 carries.
The Spartans received a serious push from the offensive line right from the start and rode it to an early score. The players had identified winning in the trenches as essential, so this success had to leave a positive impression on coaches.
Michigan made its presence felt on the ground early. Possessing a big-play offense capable of turning a monstrous play at any moment, Jim Harbaugh’s team had the Spartans off-balance early, exposing a defense that had been undisciplined with runs up the middle.
This opening-drive run from De’Veon Smith revealed issues that Michigan State had tackling. The Spartans had multiple opportunities to bring down Smith.
Still, tackling and toughness didn’t mark the biggest issues for the Spartans on Saturday. Michigan’s best success running the ball came on outside rushes, like this jet sweep from receiver Eddie McDoom.
Michigan State had already played some quick and athletic teams, but Michigan represents the cream of the crop. McDoom is one of a few who found a way to get to the sideline and turn the corner on this Michigan State defense.
The Spartans certainly aren’t slow, but, at times, it appeared they didn’t have the speed to keep up with the Wolverines. Just take a look at this touchdown run from Smith in the second quarter.
Ed Davis, among others, didn’t quite have the speed to catch Smith before he scored. Davis certainly looked good as he continues to make his way ball to full strength following a knee injury. But, again, an inability to beat rushers to the outside led to quite a few yards and points for Michigan.
The pass rush
It’s been an Achilles heel for Michigan State all season. No matter how well the Spartans do to stop the run (usually not very well), it seldom translates to success in the pass rush.
Saturday marked another day without a sack for the Spartans. Malik McDowell looks beaten up after going down yet again with an injury. This line has entrusted a lot of snaps to young players. Still, it’s inexcusable to get so little pressure on the quarterback.
When you’re facing a quick-strike offense like Michigan’s, Michigan State needed to limit the quarterback’s time to throw. But Michigan’s Wilton Speight had the time to repeatedly throw deep, like this play to Amara Darboh, who finished with 165 yards on eight catches.
Give Speight the time and space to throw, and he’ll find one of his talented receivers downfield. On this play, it looked like the Spartans might bring him down, but the sack attempt failed woefully.
With seven sacks through eight games, Michigan State stands (sits?) among six teams in FBS play who average less than a sack per game, and it will continue to be a problem until this defense offers an effective pass rush.
How the Spartans got back in it
Calls went both ways in this game, as they do in every game. Typically, any perceived favor toward one team by the officials evens itself out by the end.
So if we’re going to mention Devin Bush’s tackle on Chris Frey not only going uncalled, but unreviewed as well, then we should call attention to what went Michigan State’s way.
Scott’s pass protection abilities have been called into question at times, and the play below shows why. Upon realizing he’s beaten, Scott reverts to holding. Fortunately for him, the penalty goes uncalled.
There were several of these plays that could have set back the Spartans in their quest to make a comeback attempt. But unlike in games past, flags largely stayed in officials’ pockets.
Michigan State capitalized on that and turned up its defense in the second half. This team has struggled mightily in fourth quarters, but, in the last 15 minutes on Saturday, it allowed just 41 yards to Michigan.
The Spartans ratcheted up the intensity and didn’t make the mistakes that fatigue and inexperience caused in other games. They cut out the big plays that they had been so quick to allow against Indiana, BYU, Northwestern and Maryland.
In that sense, this game has to be uplifting. Questions remain about whether this team has the potential to be good. Maybe it’s just not destined to be a bowl-eligible team. But after watching how the Spartans finished against Michigan, it would seem that effort needn’t be questioned.