Don’t let the stat sheet fool you. Michigan may have won the battle for total yards, first downs and time of possession, but Michigan State was the better team Saturday night. Yes, there were the pesky turnovers - five of them - that Michigan committed, but turnovers are part of the game. And yes, in spite those five turnovers, Michigan was still driving for a game-winning touchdown as time expired, but the bottom line is that Michigan State was better prepared, executed better and played like it mattered more. In short, the Spartans were the better team.
It’s easy for an armchair quarterback to sit back and say that one team wants it more, but watching how Michigan State plays Michigan year in and year out, it’s clear how important this game is to Mark Dantonio and the Spartans. Former Michigan All-American and current ESPN talking head Desmond Howard offered the Michigan perspective Saturday, when on ESPN’s Gameday he told viewers that Michigan considers Ohio State and Notre Dame (who’s not even on the Wolverines’ schedule this season) its real rivals, not Michigan State. Don’t think for a second that Dantonio and his Spartans don’t continue to feed off that kind of talk. But the “disrespect” factor can only account for so much. What else can explain Michigan losing to a double-digit underdog at home?
Over the summer, when asked about the youth and inexperience of this year’s Michigan team, Jim Harbaugh responded by saying, “Young and talented? Good. Young and untalented? Bad?” The inference was that this Michigan team is the former, and nobody is disputing that. But what this game showed - what is now abundantly clear after five games - is that Michigan’s defense is proving itself to be talented (not to mention precocious) and the offense is proving itself to be young.
Michigan’s offensive line and receiving corps, in particular, are not where they need to be. Offensive line play has been an issue all season and was again against Michigan State, as the Wolverines surrendered four sacks to a Spartan defense that started two walk-ons at defensive end. But the offensive line’s problems cannot solely be attributed to youth, and for what it’s worth, the Spartans are also young. And after tumultuous an off-season that led to unusually high attrition, Michigan State is also undermanned. So what gives?
After the game, Harbaugh and several Michigan players recited the football axiom that you can’t turn the ball over and expect to win, especially five times. And they aren’t wrong. If there was a point where the game was lost, it was the eight-minute stretch in the second half when O’Korn was intercepted on three consecutive possessions. To his credit, O’Korn didn’t shy away from the criticism directed his way and shouldered responsibility for the loss. But it’s not fair to pin this loss entirely on O’Korn.
At a time when Michigan was running the ball reasonably effectively, and at a time the conditions called for sticking to the running game, Michigan abandoned it. Off Tackle Empire’s GF3 described Michigan’s second half strategy as, “In the maelstrom of a fall storm front, Harbaugh’s offense attempted to pass 11 times in 14 rain-soaked plays, leading to three interceptions.” When the skies opened up, Dantonio and Michigan State dialed it back and took no chances. Michigan, only down four points, decided that was the time to turn into Air Coryell (bonus points for anyone old enough to understand this reference). And in that driving rainstorm, the Wolverines decided to turn a back-up quarterback making his second start in three years into Daryle “the Mad Bomber” Lamonica (more bonus points if you get the Mad Bomber reference). Simply put, it was an unfair situation into which quarterback John O’Korn was placed.
It wasn’t just the number, but also the type of passes, that hamstrung O’Korn and the Wolverines. Michigan seemed intent on calling plays that had little chance of succeeding. Hopeless fades, deep outs and plays that all-too-often resulted in O’Korn firing into double - and sometime triple - coverage. Where were the tight ends so prominently featured two weeks ago against Purdue?
Wasted in the loss was another brilliant performance by the Wolverine defense. It’s not just that Michigan held the Spartans to 14 points or that it held them to 66 yards and no points in the second half (the second consecutive second half shutdown by Don Brown’s defense), but that the defense began the second half by forcing a remarkable six three-and-outs and a turnover on downs. That’s 22 consecutive plays without allowing a first down. But it was for naught.
When asked if the Wolverine defense could have done anything better, captain Mike McCray responded, “Well, we gave up 14 points. We can do better than that.” And with Michigan’s offense struggling as much as it is, the defense might just have to hold opponents under 14 points in order to win.
So where does this leave Michigan? The simple truth is that six weeks into the season, the Wolverines have an offensive line that cannot protect the quarterback or generate a consistent running game, a quarterback who’s still finding his way and a receiving corps that can’t yet be counted on (other than Grant Perry, who makes tough catch after tough catch). Harbaugh likes to talk about “improvement weeks,” but considering where this team is six weeks into the season, how much can it reasonably be expected to improve in the next few weeks? And with games against Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State looming, unless there is significant improvement on the offensive side of the ball, things could get ugly for the Wolverines.
But those concerns are for another day. The immediate concern is that despite coming to Ann Arbor as an undermanned, double-digit underdog, Michigan State nonetheless left town a victor, and in the process extended its dominance over Michigan. And that’s not playing well in Ann Arbor.