With six minutes and change left in a football game that the Michigan Wolverines had equally given away and forcibly taken from them, Denard Robinson and Company sat inches away from a 1st and goal and mere yards away from a tying score... Momentum was draped in Maize and Blue; a simple Denard dive was all that separated Michigan from storming back to tie a game that had largely been dictated by Michigan State to that juncture. The march towards the tying score was already casting a pall over the crowd in Spartan Stadium that had watched their team stake itself to a two touchdown lead with equal parts toughness and idiocy. It was the defining moment of the football game...
Michigan had arrived at this point with a struggling offense that had seemingly decided to eschew any sort of adjustment to the constant up-the-middle pressure that State brought throughout the day. This was coupled with a collection of misfires in downfield passing in the midst of a wind that would've been at home at St. Andrews. The ratio of "TAKE OFF DENARD!!!" screams to snaps was far greater inn this game than any other this season, which usually is an ominous forecast of the result. More on this later.
Yet despite those struggles, there was Michigan yards away from a tying score and wrestling control of the football game away from the Spartans in a manner that would've made Mike Hart and Chad Henne proud. In a time where the situation screamed THROW ROCK, Michigan threw out a pair of safety scissors. Urban Meyer described the aftermath of Al Borges calling a slow-developing play action when Michigan hadn't politely given either of its running backs the ball the entire half as: "part of the game" and that it would've been a great call had the corner blitz not been on. With all due respect to a great former coach and a coordinator who both clearly dwarf my football knowledge in an embarrassing way, it was the wrong call on the wrong place on the field at the wrong time. That's three wrongs when even one should raise an eyebrow in the calculus of play-calling. When your offense all day has been predicated on Denard, and everyone in the stadium knows that Denard will be the guy with the ball on the play of the game, running a play action where Denard turns his back to the play on 4th and inches, not 4th and goal, but 4th and inches, just doesn't make much sense. All that was needed was a first down, this wasn't a score or go home situation, you have a quarterback who picks up five yards by simply catching the snap and you don't give him the ball with a chance to read the defense and make a play. Didn't make sense at that time and it certainly doesn't make sense now. Guh.
More after the jump...Bullets:
1. Michigan fans love to police themselves in regards to discussing anything regarding officiating, throwing around hilarious caveats like "it didn't make a difference in the outcome" or "we wouldn't have said a word about it had we won". So, I say this knowing full well what responses will be: The officiating in this football game was nothing short of atrocious. Two fumbles ruled as incomplete forward passes, a free 15 yards after Baker steps out of bounds (complete with the sideline reporter impersonating Bear Grylls tracking some wild beast... pointing at random cleat marks on the field as though that's more conclusive than the video showing him step on the sideline), no review of the spot on Gallon's 3rd down grab that set up the 4th and inches mentioned above, not even an eyelash batted on the taunting during the pick six (a supposed point of emphasis this year) and deciding to forgo the usual ejection as William Gholston punched Taylor Lewan in plain sight, which leads me to...
2. William Gholston is a despicable football player. I don't care how talented he is, he played like a classless thug today, which ironically, is a direct embodiment of his coach. The facemask rip on Denard is the single dirtiest play I've seen since Robert Reynolds choked out Jim Sorgi in Madison years ago. For an encore piece he connected on a right hook to Taylor Lewan's helmet moments after been driven to the turf on a block. How Gholston was not ejected falls squarely at the feet of the refs; but how his coach will treat him after today will speak volumes about his character and the character of Michigan State's program. Stunningly, he wasn't the only Spartan guilty of playing this way. That Michigan couldn't take advantage of the endless parade of personal fouls makes the loss all the more galling, but the fact that they occurred in the first place tells you all you need to know about how Mark Dantonio and his Spartans play football. That Denard Robinson suffered an injury at the end of the game thanks to this kind of thuggery makes it all the more infuriating.
3. Michigan State's defense - When they weren't busy commiting an endless parade of cheap shots and late hits, the Spartan D actually played quite well. I have not seen a team limit Denard in that way since he arrived in Ann Arbor. The Michigan offensive line was overwhelmed and with no running game or quick passing game to turn to on this day, the Spartans D looked every bit the part of a top ranked unit. I can't help but think that there were multiple times where an accurate throw would've really loosened up the defense, but such is the way these things go.
4. Offensive line - Ugly day... just ugly. The rushing game was non-existent outside of Denard being Denard and the pass protection was, well it was non-existent too.
5. Al Borges - Where were the adjustments? Michigan State's plan was clear from the opening gun, we never made them pay for the endless blitzing. No attempt to rush the football or go to quick outside throws to back off the pressure. No attempts to get outside, to work a screen behind the pressure, etc. A large portion of the struggles can be tied to execution in all portions of the offense, from Denard and Devin to our receivers, to the offensive line and blitz pickups by our backs, but good gravy that was bad. Did we run a single bubble screen, misdirection draw, or speed option? On a day that featured winds that made any kind of passing difficult, Michigan's running backs barely touched the football, hard to reconcile.
6. Defense - Mixed feelings here; two turnovers that should've resulted in 14 points for the offense were great, holding MSU to 21 points on offense was also good... The tackling on key drives however was severely lacking, and the defensive line getting pushed around by an offensive line that was as far from solid as any line we'll face this year was... concerning. All in all the defense played well enough for the team to win the game, but we still clearly have some work to do.
7. 4th and one - No problem with going for it there, momentum was on our side and there was plenty of time, the call simply makes no sense to me, no more analysis than that, there are times when the QB sneak is a perfectly acceptable call, given the gap the MSU D-line was giving up on that play, the call is a QB dive for a first down, period.
8. 4th and 4 on the 36 in the first half - Um so we run a fake FG on the first drive to keep it alive, but 4th and 4 on the 36 is now a punt? Coach Hoke has been pretty much batting a thousand on these kind of calls thus far but this one made absolutely no sense.
9. Denard - Not a banner day, on a day where the wind was going to play havoc with the football anyway, Denard seemed to regress back to throwing off of crazy feet more often than not under pressure, again, in settings where the entire Michigan fanbase was most assuredly screaming "RUN" Denard made throw after throw that sailed wide or over his target. Ironically, the pick six was the correct read and a good throw that Vincent Smith simply wasn't looking for on the hot route... such is life I suppose. Denard is and should be our starting QB, his mechanics are an addressable issue and on a difficult passing day he struggled passing, that isn't necessarily a signal of regression. That said, I'm a little concerned that we don't have a base set of simple passing plays to turn to in instances where teams are going to go man to man on our outside guys and blitz like crazy to force Robinson to throw. It would seem to make sense that we have three or four "go to" routes that let Denard get rid of the ball quickly on high percentage throws, but hey maybe that's just me. I would've also loved to see us work a few more designed runs in for him and I would've loved to have seen him be more willing to just tuck and run more often with State committing to blitzing so often. In the understatement of the year I sure hope he's healthy, the guy played his tail off despite the struggles.
10. The rest of the year - Probably a good time for a bye week, sure would've loved it last week though. Michigan has a lot in this week's game film to look at and gameplan for, going forward. Michigan State basically gave a blueprint for the rest of the teams for how to attempt to slow down Denard. While none of the teams left on the schedule have a defense with the same statistical rankings as Michigan State, there will be plenty of blitzing going forward.
While the loss is obviously disappointing, this team still has the opportunity to play for a birth in the Big 10 title game, and that next step starts with bouncing back against Purdue two weeks from now.