Some things always seem to be tried and true in the Jim Harbaugh era, and Saturday’s game against Michigan State was the amalgamation of Harbaugh at Michigan. On the road, against a Top-25 opponent, the Wolverines just could not get the job done as they fall to the Spartans, 37-33.
This team shot itself in the foot several times in the game: they couldn't convert touchdowns off of turnovers, they got too comfortable with a lead, they continued their two-quarterback approach which resulted in a silly turnover, and in the game's biggest moments, they shrunk, again.
Close, but no cigar. That should be the motto for Harbaugh’s time at Michigan and especially against Michigan State. His record falls to 3-4 against Michigan State in his tenure. All four losses have come by four points or less. Meanwhile, Mel Tucker’s improves to 2-0, the first time a Michigan State head coach has boasted that feat.
Let’s dive into how today’s game went down:
The first couple of plays for the Spartans’ offense looked good. Kenneth Walker III ran through some big holes. But a couple of pass plays left Michigan State at 3rd & 5 on the Michigan side of the field. Payton Thorne decided to take a deep shot into double coverage and RJ Moten came down with it for a Michigan interception.
The Wolverines took over at the 2-yard line. On 3rd & 5, Cade McNamara found Andrel Anthony on a crossing route over the middle of the field. The freshman from Lansing took it 93 yards to the house, pulling away from all the Spartans’ defenders to give the Wolverines the early 7-0 lead.
The 93-yard score was the second-longest passing touchdown in program history according to the Michigan Football Twitter page. Only Mario Manningham’s 97-yard TD pass in 2007 was longer according to ESPN Stats and Info. Anthony’s reception was also the longest play in the history of this rivalry.
After trading possessions, MSU took over at their own 19-yard line and it didn’t take long for another turnover to be forced by the Michigan defense. Dax Hill lept in the air on a blitz off the outside and hit Thorne’s pass straight up in the air. Defensive lineman Mike Morris came down with it for the second interception of the first quarter for the Michigan defense.
A penalty after the interception for some extracurriculars by a Michigan State offensive lineman moved the ball to the MSU 30. Good field position, but the Wolverines didn’t capitalize as they settled for a field goal. Michigan had the lead 10-0 to end the first quarter.
The Spartans took over and responded for the first time. A couple of completions from Thorne to Jayden Reed and Jaylon Nailor moved the ball into Michigan territory. Then, Kenneth Walker III did what a Heisman candidate does in a big game like this. He bounced a ball to the outside and found the endzone on a 27-yard run. He may have fumbled it before crossing the line, but the call stood after review.
Michigan’s offense was now called to make a play, and the drive started off with J.J. McCarthy at quarterback moving the ball down the field before transitioning back to McNamara. Slow and methodical was the drive as Michigan hit a few short runs and passes to runningbacks. On 3rd & 3 just outside the redzone, Hassan Haskins was stuffed on a dive play and the Wolverines had to settle for another field goal. Michigan maintained the lead 13-7, but field goals on the road don’t often keep leads.
Walker III got loose on the first play of the next drive running for 18 yards. On the next play, the Michigan State runningback ran for another 9 yards. On 4th & 1, Tucker called up a trick play that left Maliq Carr open down the middle of the field for 40 yards. Quick tempo caught the Wolverines sleeping as Walker III punched it in for the first Spartan lead of the game 14-13. He finished the first half with 12 carries, 87 yards, and two scores.
Trailing for the first time in the game, Michigan’s offense needed a response. It looked good early as McNamara found Erick All for 15 yards. A few plays later, Hassan Haskins rushed for 23 yards into the redzone. J.J. McCarthy in the game, and the true freshman threw a bullet to Anthony in the endzone. It was Anthony's second touchdown of the game and he made a spectacular catch over a Spartan corner. Michigan quickly retook the lead at 20-14.
The Michigan pass rush started to make some plays as the Spartans’ offense took over. Aidan Hutchinson broke loose for a sack and there was also a holding penalty on the play that put Michigan State behind the sticks. Two plays later, David Ojabo got around the edge and sacked Thorne at the 3-yard line. The ball popped loose and Hutchinson picked it in the endzone for a score! But the zebras thought otherwise, changing the call on the field to Thorne being down because his shin hit the ground before the ball was fumbled.
It cost the Wolverines a score and the ensuing punt for 67 yards by Bryce Baringer didn’t help, either. McNamara had a really impressive first half and ran the 2-minute drill very well in this situation. He hit All for 17 yards, then Anthony for 11. The Michigan quarterback was 14-20 for 232 yards and a touchdown in the first half. But, on a free play as a Spartans’ defender jumped offsides, McNamara didn’t go deep for a score. It may have cost the Wolverines a touchdown on this drive. Tucker used all three of his timeouts as Moody lined up for the 35-yarder. He hit all four of his attempts to get an important three points as the first half ended. Despite some missed opportunities, Michigan went into the break up two scores, 23-14.
The Wolverines also got the ball out of halftime. They picked up a first down on 3rd & 9 with a great pitch and catch from McNamara to All. After getting held short on a 3rd & 1 run by Haskins, the Wolverines decided to go for it. But, the left side of the line flinched and moved it back to 4th & 5. The snap on the punt was mishandled by Brad Robbins and he decided to take off and try to get a first down but was a yard or two short.
After a quick Michigan State possession, two separate quarterback runs for both Michigan signal callers picked up 10-plus yards. Then, a flea-flicker pass to Anthony in the endzone was just overthrown. But, the Wolverines still found the endzone as McNamara hit Mike Sainristil on a crossing route for a 19-yard score.
Michigan moves the score up to 30-14, but it’s still only a two-possession game.
Desperate for some offense, Michigan State put together a really strong drive. Thorne found Jaydon Reed four times on the drive including a massive 4th & 4 that went for 28 yards on a wheel route. It was a play that looked like could have been a dagger for the Michigan defense that, instead, set up the Spartans inside the 1-yard line. The next play, Walker III punched it in for his third score of the game. A two-point conversion was converted and the Spartans found themselves down a score, 30-22, with just under four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Michigan got a bit conservative and tried to milk some clock with a majority of runs and few shots down the field. A 7-play, 28-yard drive took us into the 4th quarter, but Michigan State had the ball with a chance to tie it. They converted their first third down of the game on 3rd & 10 to keep the chains moving on a screen pass from Thorne to Reed. Then, they picked up another third down a couple of plays later after Connor Heyward extended for a first. RJ Moten had a chance to get his second pick of the game on the next play, but it fell incomplete. It may have sealed a win for Michigan. On another third down, Walker III broke free for a 58-yard run for his fourth score of the game. An important two-point conversion was caught by Reed on a fade route and suddenly we’re tied at 30.
The next drive, and Michigan needed to get some more points on the board. A 43-yard pass from McNamara to Sainristil on a wide-open flag route put the Wolverines in field goal range. But a facemask penalty that was and then wasn’t called and a questionable noncall on what could have been pass interference in the endzone added to the laundry list of calls that were going State’s way. Still, Moody knocked in his fourth field goal of the game to give the Wolverines a 33-30 lead.
Michigan State looking to respond, but Hutchinson and Ojabo thought otherwise. Hutchinson had a big sack on second and short and Ojabo stripped it on third. It was recovered by the Spartans before having to punt.
McCarthy in the game again for Michigan, he fumbles it on the handoff, and Michigan State recovers in plus territory. It was the second time in as many appearances for McCarthy that he lost handle of the football. The Spartans now had a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter.
A holding penalty cost the Spartans 10 yards on first down, but Mike Morris jumped offsides on 3rd & 8. The Spartans would pick up a first on a Walker III run. A few plays later, and Walker III found the endzone for the fifth time, taking the lead 37-33 for the Spartans. The Heisman hopeful finished with an astounding 197 yards on 23 carries, and 5 touchdowns on the day.
Cade McNamara back in action for the Wolverines after the McCarthy fumble on the last drive. He converted a 4th & 3 to Cornelius Johnson to pick up a pivotal first down. A couple of plays later on 3rd & 3, McNamara missed Sainristil on a deep ball towards the pylon. On 4th down, the Wolverines turned it over after Johnson ran into two Michigan State defensive backs, one that may have been holding.
Luckily, Michigan had all three timeouts and they used them all to get the ball back with 1:15 remaining. McNamara tossed one to Erick All who ran a flag route, which was open for most of the day. But this time, Charles Brantley dropped back in coverage and snagged a one-handed interception to seal the win for Sparty.
As much as fans may want to blame this one on the refs, the Wolverines squandered away this win. Two early turnovers by the Michigan defense resulted in six points. Moody had to kick four field goals, all from inside 40 yards. The offense just didn’t finish drives today as great as Cade McNamara was. Tally on a 16-0 run for the Spartans and two late turnovers on the McCarthy fumble and McNamara pick, and it creates a recipe for blowing a lead and losing a game.
As much as this one stings, the Wolverines need to flush it. They have a pretty good team in the Indiana Hoosiers coming to Ann Arbor this Saturday who are very well capable of providing an upset. There is still plenty of strong competition on the Michigan schedule. They will need to win out and get a little help to make the Big Ten Championship game and beyond this season.