A week ago, Michigan State fans were on edge. After the Spartans handed Rutgers its first conference win in nearly three years (literally, you might say, turning the ball over seven times), to say the Spartan fanbase was less than thrilled with new coach Mel Tucker would be putting it mildly. Just one game into his tenure and many in East Lansing were already calling the hire a mistake. Good luck finding anyone voicing that sentiment today. Not after Tucker and his Spartans defeated the heavily favored Wolverines in Ann Arbor Saturday.
Michigan State out-prepared, out-performed and out-toughed the Wolverines. The Spartans may have won by a mere field goal, but if you watched the game, you know it never felt that close. Michigan State never trailed. Michigan never seemed to be in the game.
And that’s not sitting well in Ann Arbor.
This was never a championship-caliber Michigan team. Too much turnover in personnel. Too many questions. But the same could be said of Michigan State. Yet the Spartans took it to the Wolverines from the start. If there’s a hallmark to this rivalry, it’s that Michigan State tends to approach the game with more vigor than does Michigan, and that was no exception this year. Michigan looked tentative all day. Never looked comfortable on offensive or defense. Never attacked.
Michigan State, however, did attack.
The most glaring weakness in Michigan’s game was its pass defense. Its pass rush never got to Spartan quarterback Rocky Lombardi and its defensive backs couldn’t cover Michigan State’s receivers. Freshman Ricky White, who Rutgers held to one reception for five yards, feasted on Michigan cornerbacks all day, hauling in eight receptions for 196 yards and a touchdown. It seemed like every time Lombardi dropped back to pass, the result was a long completion or a defensive penalty. That Tucker and the Spartan coaching staff recognized this advantage and adjusted their game plan to take advantage was not only the story of the day, it was also in stark contrast to what happened on the other sideline.
Michigan players said after the game that they weren’t prepared for the Spartans’ passing game, that they were focused on defending the run. And there’s no sin in that. It’s doubtful that Tucker and the Spartans came into the contest expecting to air it out to the degree in which they did. It’s not exactly in Michigan State’s DNA. But when Tucker and the Spartans realized that Michigan couldn’t cover Michigan State’s receivers, they adjusted their game plan and took advantage of the Wolverines’ weakness. Michigan coaches, on the other hand, didn’t adjust their defensive game plan in response, stubbornly remaining in man-to-man, press coverage. The result was a field day for Lombardi, White and the Spartans.
The game wasn’t strictly won through the air, however. Michigan State prevailed for the same reason most football teams prevail, because it won the battle in the trenches, controlling both sides of the line of scrimmage. Michigan’s vaunted pass rush not only never sacked Lombardi, but it rarely pressured him. On the flip side, Michigan could neither run (particularly between the tackles) or protect its young quarterback. Michigan quarterback Joe Milton talked after the game about his happy feet. “I don’t know why my feet were busy,” Milton told reporters. I have a pretty good idea - his offensive line could neither generate a ground game nor contain the Spartan pass rush. As a result, Milton (understandably) never looked comfortable.
If you didn’t know better, you might think Michigan had never seen Michigan State play before. The Wolverines were neither prepared for the aggressive play of Michigan State’s defensive front seven nor were they able to adjust their game plan in response. The same could not be said of Michigan State. Spartan linebacker Antjuan Simmons, the defensive star of the game, was asked about quotes by Michigan players saying that he wasn’t on their radar. Simmons, who attended high school across the street from Michigan Stadium, responded with a laugh before adding, “I don’t know what those guys do over there. We study our opponent. We knew who we were playing against.”
Michigan State coaches clearly did their homework. In Michigan’s season opening victory against Minnesota, the Wolverines had success with a short-to-midrange passing game. As a result, Milton and Michigan were able to stay ahead of the chains and stay ahead on the scoreboard. The Spartans took that away by crowding the line of scrimmage and giving the Wolverines nothing easy. Michigan never adjusted. Instead, the Wolverines continued looking for the short passes, continued to run into the teeth of a stout Spartan defensive front, doing little to stretch the Spartan defense. The result was a long day for Milton and the Wolverines.
After the game, Milton shouldered the responsibility for the loss, saying, “Put today’s game on me.” It was a noble gesture, but not an accurate one. Milton looked unsettled at times and never looked as comfortable as he did in the season opener, but his play was far from Michigan’s biggest problem. For a young quarterback in his second start, Milton played admirably. Particularly considering Michigan inexplicably did little to make his job easier.
After the game, more than one Michigan player mentioned that, “the game didn’t turn out the way it was supposed to.” Supposed to. That sentiment aptly summed up Michigan’s mindset. Michigan came into the game expecting to win. Michigan State came into the game expecting a fight. Michigan never seemed to match Michigan State’s energy or emotion. Never seemed to acknowledge that what it was doing wasn’t working. Never showed any sense of urgency, even as precious seconds were ticking off the clock.
And as a result, it’s now the fanbase “down the road” that’s on edge.