Welcome to the Reaction Roundtable, a new feature we are debuting at Maize n Brew. Each Sunday this football season, three of our staff members, Kevin Bunkley, Drew Hallett, and Josh LaFond, will share their instant thoughts, analysis, musings, and (attempted) humor on Michigan’s’ performance the previous day. It will be a free-flowing conversation, like the one you had with your best friend on the couch or the buffoon at the bar yesterday, with no form, rhyme, or reason. And, by the end, we will wrap up what you need to know before the next game week.
Drew Hallett: So last night happened, which surprised me and didn’t surprise me all the same time. No. 7 Michigan was a 12-point home favorite against Michigan State and expected to slay the Spartans for the second straight season, but under Mark Dantonio, Michigan State always outperforms expectations in this game. That and the confluence of other factors led to what Michigan fans dreaded: the Spartans upsetting the Wolverines in the Big House. Again.
Before we discuss the big-picture ramifications of this result, let’s delve into what the hell happened last night. What do you think was the biggest reason for Michigan’s loss to MSU?
Josh LaFond: Well, I was unfortunately at the game (pray for my liver), and two things stood out to me. First, the offensive line yet again did not give John O’Korn time to go through his progressions or do anything for that matter. It seemed like, every passing play, O’Korn was scrambling around back there for his life.
Second, the weather controlled the second half. Michigan State got their points exclusively in the first half, and that allowed them to continually pin Michigan back. The rain took away the passing game for the most part (I’m sure you’ll want to touch on that later, Drew) and because that element of the offense was limited, Michigan State was able to time after time keep the Wolverine offense from capitalizing.
Kevin Bunkley: Erratic play calls and lack of preparation. That is not the same as execution. Michigan was running the ball well. But they only did that 39 times. It felt like their YPC was over five until the final quarter when Michigan just...quit running the dang ball.
Michigan had two weeks to prepare for an in-state rival that is *always* prepared. Dropped passes, bad throws, and inconsistent rushing yardage from all three guys made them look like they didn’t have much of a game plan for their backup quarterback. It’s kind of amazing Michigan still had an opportunity to win after how bad the offense moved the ball throughout.
Drew: Michigan’s yards per carry were only 2.5 through the third quarter. It was 3.1 in the fourth alone, so yay, improvement! (lol) But Michigan’s running game was a slog the entire contest.
This was the dumbest game for reasons in and out of Michigan’s control. The dumbest.
With storms approaching in the second half, Michigan had to capitalize in the first. Had to. Rain of that nature favors teams with strong defenses and strong running games because the last thing teams want to do is sling the ball around in a monsoon. However, Michigan’s best chance to exploit Michigan State’s defensive weaknesses was through the air. Michigan State’s safeties are susceptible to allowing big plays, and it was unlikely Michigan’s offensive line could hold up.
This is why Michigan’s first-half turnovers were so crucial. You cannot expect to win when you cough up the football five times, but the two in the first half were gut punches. Michigan had a 3-0 lead and appeared to be in great shape when Ty Isaac, toting the rock like a loaf of bread on his first carry, was stripped with ease near midfield. Michigan State, with an offense which proved to be ineffective against Michigan unless it involved Brian Lewerke’s legs or a kinky play design that Dantonio kept in his playbook for just this game, suddenly had the ball in excellent field position and capitalized with a touchdown. Just like that, Michigan State led Michigan, 7-3.
Sean McKeon’s fumble was an even more devastating blow. Now it’s 14-3 Michigan State, and the Wolverines were scrambling to close the first half with some points. It was about to happen as McKeon was about to finish off a 36-yard reception to put Michigan in field-goal range. Then, of course, whilst he was fighting for extra yards, the ball is punched out and jumped on by MSU.
This kept Michigan in an 11-point hole in the middle of a monsoon with an offensive line which was wrecked by Michigan State. In that weather, the Spartans stuffed everything that Michigan tried on the ground, holding the Wolverines to 102 yards on 39 carries (2.6 YPC), and dared John O’Korn to beat them through the rain while being pressured consistently. O’Korn responded by throwing three interceptions, and his receivers did not help him by dropping numerous balls. It was a disaster, but at that point, it was not surprising in the least.
This loss was the perfect storm of bad game management, bad play-calling, mental miscues, lack of discipline, offensive line struggles, horrendous weather, and some bad misfortune (for example, Lewerke fumbling a critical third-down snap in the rain, picking it up, and appearing to be brought down short of the marker only to roll on top of his lineman for a first down. c’mon.)
And, of course, this all comes against a rival. Michigan has now dropped to 1-4 against Ohio State and Michigan State under Jim Harbaugh, and three of those losses have been heartbreakers: the bobbled punt snap, The Spot, and now this complete monsoon mess.
Harbaugh is a great football coach, but the honeymoon period is officially over.
Josh: Yeah, everything you said was right, Drew. The honeymoon is officially over and now the married life starts with Jim Harbaugh and company.
If I told you Michigan would have five turnovers in this game. you’d probably think they lost by 14 or more. The fact that they only lost by four speaks to how amazing this defense is, but I’m not going to touch on them too much right now. I want to get back to what you were saying about Michigan’s record against their rivals.
The fact is, you just can’t go 1-4 against your biggest rivals. That’s unacceptable. When you get two out of the three games against Michigan State at home in Ann Arbor and fumble them both away (pun NOT intended), I can tell you for sure that causes the fan base to lose confidence in the leaders of this program.
The stats you threw out there in your last paragraph made me nearly regurgitate my last meal. This has got to be fixed and fixed quick because, as we all know, Michigan fans do NOT have patience at all for things like this, especially when this staff is getting paid the amount that they are.
Drew: When is a Michigan team going to rise up when Michigan State lines up across from them? It didn’t happen under Rich Rodriguez. It didn’t happen under Brady Hoke. And it isn’t happening now under Jim Harbaugh. Michigan has faced Michigan State three times under Harbaugh. The Wolverines have been at least a touchdown favorite in all of them and were at home for two. Yet Michigan is 1-2 with both losses at home and one win against a Michigan State team that self-destructed into a 3-9 outfit. And even that game was closer than it should have been. The Spartans have beaten the spread by an average 14 points in their three games against Harbaugh’s Wolverines and are 10-0 against the spread in their past 10 meetings.
Is anyone in the Michigan program fed up with this yet? Are they tired of Mark Dantonio always being more prepared and out-coaching them? Michigan has more talent and, this season, has the better team. Yet Dantonio always extracts everything out of his team for this game, and Michigan always seems to play scared. Like they are not ready for the moment. The multiple mental mistakes, from the bad fumbles to the dropped balls to being flagged for holding when John O’Korn finds Kekoa Crawford for what should be a 55-yard touchdown. Enough, man.
Harbaugh rescued this program from the ashes Hoke left it in and converted it back into one that can compete for titles. But you have to beat your rivals. You have to. It’s one thing to lose to an Ohio State team when Urban Meyer had a three-year head start. It’s another to lose to a Michigan State team off a 3-9 season and tumultuous offseason. At home and under the lights.
This is a bad loss. A bad loss for many reasons, and it’s going to leave a really bad taste.
The only way for Michigan to get rid of that bad taste is to bounce back from this and finish the season strong (and beat Ohio State because you do not want to be 1-5 versus your rivals).
What do you think? Do you think this team has it in them?
Josh: Well, they’ve got the talent. What this season is going to come down to is the game on the road, in Happy Valley, against Penn State in two weeks. If you can somehow walk out of there with a win, then yes, this season can be salvaged and the division title is still within reach.
This offensive line doesn’t need to be elite. They just need to be decent.
The offense as a whole doesn’t need to be the caliber they were last year. They just need to be average.
I say those two things because you know what? The defense will carry them the rest of the year. Michigan just needs this offense to tread water and put up a couple scores a game.
They have the talent to accomplish that, but the jury is still out for me at least on whether they can actually get it done.
Drew: This is still a 9-3 team, though it will be tougher to get there with Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State still remaining. The defense is excellent. Not perfect, but excellent. Their aggressiveness will bite them at times, as it did when Brian Lewerke scrambled for a score and Michigan State executed its beautiful fake slip screen, but that defense should keep Michigan in every single game. Even on Saturday night, Michigan’s defense forced the Spartans into seven straight three- or four-and-outs in the second half, giving U-M’s offense every chance to win.
But the real question will be if Michigan’s offense can seize those chances. We should not discount how much the monsoon played a role in the loss to Michigan State, but Saturday was not the first time Michigan has had offensive problems. The offensive line is a sieve, particularly on the right side. Michigan substituted Juwann Bushell-Beatty in for Nolan Ulizio at right tackle midway through the game to little effect. I never bought into the notion that Michigan would have “addition by subtraction” on the offensive line this season, and that has not been the case at all. But more importantly, the offense has systemic issues. It’s not just the offensive line, but everywhere. Amara Darboh, Jake Butt, and Jehu Chesson were meaningful losses, but the passing game was not supposed to drop off this much. Michigan hiring Pep Hamilton as its passing coordinator was praised, but it’s been difficult to see any positive impact it has made. And Tim Drevno will take heat for the results thus far.
It’s now on Jim Harbaugh to sort out this mess. He’s an offensive coach, considered a quarterback guru, and this is his team in his third season. I thought that this was would be a step-back season for Michigan before 2018 became “the year,” but fans will have a much harder time being patient with an 8-4 season that includes losses to Ohio State and Michigan State.
Harbaugh is supposed to be Michigan’s savior. Now it’s time for him to save this season.
Kevin: I do want to leave with one positive takeaway from the game: my rain jacket kept me dry.