Saturday's game will forever be defined by one unfortunate play. Never mind the 59 minutes and 50 seconds that transpired before Blake O'Neill's fumbled punt, all the things that went right and wrong, setting the table for that moment. Michigan had all but won the game. It had the equivalent of a tap-in putt to seal it.
Sometimes in life, things don't work out. On rare occasions, those things not working out do so in spectacular fashion, and come at you from such unexpected angles that you don't realize what is happening until it's already happened and you're still staring in disbelief at the television silently, mouth agape, trying to convince yourself that what you just saw didn't really happen and that all is still well.
Michigan had effectively won the game right up until the moment it hadn't.
This was a very close game in which either side largely dominated key aspects of the game. Michigan State's defense bottled up Michigan's run game, and Connor Cook was the difference on the other side of the ball, playing out of his mind en route to a 300-yard game through the air during which he was able to move the MSU offense in fits and starts. Meanwhile, Michigan's defense kept MSU from sustaining drives by winning third (3/12) and fourth (0/4) downs and controlling the line of scrimmage, and Michigan's special teams put field position firmly in Michigan's control.
The question isn't so much "what went wrong?" — because the answer "that happened" isn't very satisfying — as it is "where did Michigan cede the most ground in terms of advantages". This was a game of matchups, and while Michigan won its fair share, it also managed to lose a game in which it led for all 60 minutes of game time.
Above all else, one thing sticks out...
Connor Cook vs. Jake Rudock
It became clear pretty early in this game that neither team was going to have much success on the ground. Michigan busted one run through to the second level late in the first quarter, and that would constitute about half of Michigan's rushing yards on the day. Meanwhile, Michigan State found no space to work along the line and got its longest runs on (A) a missed holding call on L.J. Scott's 11 yard run and (B) an Aaron Burbridge reverse. Both teams finished the game with 33 carries and less than two yards per. There were only two runs that gained more than ten yards all day.
Thus, the onus fell to the quarterbacks. Connor Cook came into the game as a legit NFL draft prospect and proved why, delivering a number of on-target throws to his receivers down field in tight coverage. Coming into the game Michigan was sporting one of the most effective pass defenses in the country and a defensive line that was living in opposing backfields. Cook managed the rush, found receivers down the field, and gave them catchable balls.
There is no better illustration of this than the Aaron Burbridge-Jourdan Lewis matchup. Burbridge was targeted by Cook 19 times in the game and covered by Lewis on 18 of those plays (the 19th was a 27-yard completion over Jarrod Wilson). So Burbridge was the intended recipient of nearly half of Cook's 39 pass attempts and responsible for half of his 18 completions. Cook spent the day trying to get the ball downfield to Burbridge, and Lewis kept windows tight throughout the afternoon.
Still, Cook was able to find success against the tight coverage by throwing his receiver open, anticipating breaks, and taking advantage when the coverage was soft or advantageous. Consider a couple plays from MSU's second drive:
- 1st-10 from the two-yard line: Lewis is playing soft coverage on Burbridge on the outside and Cook throws a perfect pass, releasing it before Burbridge has even started his break back toward the sidelines. He gets to the sideline just as the ball does, Lewis has no shot at defending this. That's an NFL throw.
- 3rd-10 from MSU 26: Cook hits Burbridge on an out route for the first down with a crisp throw that is high and outside enough to shield the defense and give Burbridge the only shot at catching it, which he does. First down.
Neither of these passes are groundbreaking, but both are great throws made against a good defense in a situation where Michigan State has a clear advantage. Michigan State did not score on that drive, but this would set a pattern in which MSU would take shots down the field through the game, which was enough to keep the offense moving and make up for some of the yardage lost in special teams. Michigan would...well, that's a different story.
Later in the game, on MSU's second drive of the third quarter — which was also the Spartans' only touchdown drive of 70-plus yards (no, the pass to the FB isn't a drive, its a play) — the Spartans would move the ball on three big pass plays. First, a slant to Burbridge beat Lewis's coverage. On the next play, R.J. Shelton pulled in a spectacular catch on the sideline for 27 yards. Finally, Jeremy Clark got beat on a double move for a 30-yard touchdown pass. Instead of turning his hips and running with the receiver to the corner, he let the receiver run into his lap and cut off him to the wide-open corner. There is also no safety help over top.
Pictured: not a real good time
Michigan State would take advantage of a similar breakdown later in the game when fullback Trevor Pendleton would rumble 74 yards after being left wide open down field. Two touchdowns, both caused by an offense that put the defense in a tough position and then capitalized when the defense failed to make a play. But, more importantly, these plays all came in the context of an offense that was unafraid to test the Michigan secondary deep, led by a quarterback capable of beating good coverage down the field. Michigan State converted just 3 of 12 third downs and none of its fourth down attempts and still managed almost 400 yards of offense. Chunk plays in the passing game made this possible.
Meanwhile, Michigan had five completions of 20-plus yards in this game. One of those was the shovel pass to Peppers for 28 yards to set up Michigan's second touchdown. Oddly, those are still defined as passes in the official stats record. Another 21-yard pass play was a short throw to A.J. Williams on a crossing route that he turned into a bigger gain.
Contrast this to Michigan State's six plays of 20-plus yards and the difference is stark even from the beginning: all of those were throws down field. Furthermore, it was the passes that Jake Rudock wasn't hitting over the top that really hurt.
Coming into the game, the Spartans were beat up in the secondary. The team still played tight, aggressive coverage schemes, but with more breakdowns and big plays allowed. This was Michigan State's weakness. Michigan failed to capitalize. Rudock badly under-threw Darboh on a pass that would have been a touchdown had he hit him in stride. Instead Darboh was tackled. Rudock also struggled to hit Chesson with an accurate deep ball all game long. What was even worse? Rudock sometimes didn't even take advantageous shots against single man coverage and instead took sacks or threw the ball away.
This is not an attempt to pile on Jake Rudock. He had Michigan in the position to win against Michigan State, he has guided the Wolverines to five wins already, and he is clearly the best quarterback on the roster that can play right now. He is fine.
He is also this team's ceiling, as evidenced by this game. Michigan had a strong defensive effort that was exploited on a couple breakdowns for points, but otherwise controlled the line of scrimmage and shut down long drives. The special teams constantly gave the Wolverines solid field position to work with and kept the MSU offense backed up on its side of the field.
How I feel in the aftermath of this game is difficult to parse out. The sudden, crushing nature of this loss distorts a lot of what came before it, and letting that play bleed into everything else won't do anyone any favors.
But the fact remains that Michigan's biggest offensive weakness in 2015 is the inability to challenge defenses over the top with the passing game, and, more than halfway through the season, we are getting farther and farther from a comfortable perch to watch and wait for the light to come on for Rudock. Meanwhile, we saw what an offense can do against a very good defense even if the run game fails, and Michigan State kept itself in position to win thanks to its ability to throw the ball down the field.
Michigan is legitimately good this year, and it should win a lot more games before the season ends. However, winning Game No. 12 and any that come after will be much harder without this piece of the puzzle.