There are losses that lend themselves to extensive analysis, nitpicking, second guessing and other miscellaneous forms of neurotics-in-hindsight: then there are losses like Michigan's in East Lansing on Saturday.
That's not to say that Michigan fans shouldn't be upset, frustrated or puzzled. Whether it's the loss being Michigan's fifth in six games against the Spartans, the in-the-red rushing total or the fact that Michigan now has essentially no chance at making the conference championship game, there are certainly things at which to shake your fist.
With that said, in this vacuum, the simplest conclusion is that Michigan State was by far the better team, a notion that puts an end to the aforementioned emotions like the extinguishing a candle flame with a single breath. I didn't think Michigan would win this game anyway, so perhaps I had subconsciously prepared myself for what ended up happening.
I dislike using the word "narrative," but all of the games in a given season do form a mishmashy story of some sort. Not every signature win or defeat proves to resonate indefinitely, but, when synthesized with the body of work as a whole, outlines of the supposedly big picture begin to emerge from the chaotic ether of college football.
Given the nature of Michigan's recruiting at the end of the Rich Rodriguez era, especially on the offensive line, this lack of basic competency perhaps should not be surprising. Yet, within the context of this particular story --the 2013 season-- you would like to see some sort of improvement as the season moves forward. Michigan is eight games into its season, and that improvement has not come to pass.
Losing to a rival in that manner is painful, but when one team so thoroughly bests another, I find myself reacting with nothing more than a resigned shrug. On a macroscopic level, however, without using the word "honeymoon," I don't need to tell you that an ominous dark cloud is beginning to advance upon the Ann Arbor skyscape.
Save for a few initial downfield strikes of hope from Devin Gardner to Jeremy Gallon, the Michigan offense took haymaker after haymaker, stuck against the ropes without the ability to escape, let alone strike back. Unlike pugilistic tales on the silver screen, the Wolverines didn't have an answer for the Spartan onslaught. Sometimes the referee stands over the fallen and counts to 10.
I don't think Al Borges called a perfect game; in hindsight, it's always easy to say that an offensive coordinator should have called this or that (e.g. following the Connor Cook interception late in the third quarter). I also don't think this line of criticism is particularly useful here. Football is a simultaneously complicated yet simple game. No matter what you call, if you can't block, whether as a result of physical or mental failings, the car will remain stuck in the driveway.
As Michigan State picked up four sacks in the first quarter alone (en route to a nine sack day when all was said and done), I couldn't help but liken the performance to the 2005 Iron Bowl, in which Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle was sacked 11 times in a 28-18 Crimson Tide defeat. Michigan is essentially back to where it was during the Denard Robinson era, when defenses had zero respect for the Wolverines' secondary running options. Of course, therein lies part of the problem, as in an ideal world, a football team's tailbacks should not be considered "secondary" rushing options.
Unlike previous seasons, Michigan does not have Denard's ability to bring life to the team with one spectacular flash of speed. That is by no means a critique of Devin Gardner, who played his heart out; he just doesn't have the running ability that Denard had. Very few do.
Even without a traditional ground game, Michigan has gotten by via Gardner's ability to make plays with his feet, but Michigan State was having none of that. Gardner's longest run of the day went for just six yards.
Without that threat, Gardner was left exposed to the relentless Spartan pass rush, which ran around and through Michigan's Maginot Line-esque blocking over and over again. Even when Michigan occasionally tried to hit MSU with quick hitters, it didn't find much success. Having not watched the game a second time, I can recall from memory a quick slant, the patented throwback screen and one of those in-step seam routes either falling incomplete due to inaccuracy or simply being blown up by MSU defenders.
As has typically been the case under Borges, Michigan's passing game remained decidedly vertical in intent, which mostly resulted in failure as play action fakes went essentially ignored as a cheap, unconvincing magic trick. Michigan tried to convince the Spartans that they were pulling a quarter from behind their ear, but the Spartans knew where it was all along.
I find myself writing this as a practically stream-of-consciousness, formless thing, mostly because I'll bring up a particular failing and ask myself "Well, what should Borges have done? What could he have done?"
Simply put, Mark Dantonio has built a defensive monster in East Lansing that won't be going anywhere as long as he's roaming the sidelines. MSU's corners are skilled and physical, its linebackers tough and quick and its defensive ends relentless with their ears pinned back. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap and acknowledge that the other team was better.
Look at Michigan's point totals against the Spartans since 2004. Beginning with that season, it goes as such: 45, 34, 31, 28, 21, 20, 17, 14, 12 and 6. That is not a coincidence.
That, of course, is the hardest part: you can't tip your cap forever. At some point, questions must become answers. I have said this before and I'll say it again: I've never been a "fire Coach X" guy, and I won't start being that guy now. But, on an extremely reductive level, something must change if Michigan is to avoid coaching turnover at the assistant level this offseason or next), or worse, at the top.
For the third time in the Hoke era, Michigan will not win a Big Ten championship (or even play for one), the proudly stated goal of Michigan's head coach since he took the podium for his introductory press conference. For now, the inexperience of the offensive line and the resulting inability to craft a coherent offensive identity will have to be begrudgingly accepted as valid, if unpleasant, explanations for the unit's performance, especially on the road.
Much of the focus has been on the offensive side of the ball, and rightfully so. However, it should be noted that although this defense is by no means great, or even some gradation of pretty good, it has fought valiantly when called upon. Saturday was no different.
Minus the Cook touchdown pass late in the first half, the Michigan defense played well enough to send the Wolverines into the half down just 13-6, even with the Spartans boasting excellent field position more often than not. However, the Wolverine offense managed just one first down in the third quarter; there is only so much a defense can take before it breaks.
Despite being down only 10, the game essentially ended after Michigan went backwards on three straight plays following Raymon Taylor's timely interception. Cook did the one thing a quarterback of a team with a defense like that cannot do, and Michigan couldn't capitalize. A failed inverted veer and two consecutive sacks later, and the Wolverines were punting once again.
Even so, the Michigan defense did have opportunities to make plays in key situations and didn't. An MSU 3rd & 12 from the Michigan 34 comes to mind; Cook completed a 25-yard pass to Bennie Fowler for a first down on a drive that eventually found the end zone. Even after the missed extra point, with the Wolverines technically still only down two scores, there was clearly no comeback in the cards (i.e. Tate Forcier's late game charge in 2009).
As disappointing as the line play has been, especially when viewed through the analytical lens of The State of the Program, the lack of a pass rush in Year 3 is equally as concerning. Like the offensive line, perhaps things will improve as youngsters like Taco Charlton, Mario Ojemudia and Chris Wormley (and 2014 recruit Lawrence Marshall) progress and become regular fixtures. But, like the offensive line, that will take time.
Unfortunately, time is not infinite in major college football.
Michigan still has a chance to grab a couple more victories, maybe even three if things go well. A 9-3 regular season would represent a slight improvement on paper, but Michigan's concerns are more infrastructural than win-loss totals can convey.
The rain fell early in Saturday's game, like a meteorological warning that Michigan was walking into a Red Wedding. By the time the rain abated, however, it was too late to escape.