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What we learned against Michigan State: List of unanswered questions keeps growing

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The mounting frustrations with this team came to a boil on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The first loss of the season stings. It especially hurts against a rival. At home. In a game where you were favored by double-digit points.

Blame it on the weather, or on the turnovers, or on whatever you wish could take full responsibility. At the end of the day, a loss is a loss.

Clearly, through five games, the season is not yet lost for these Wolverines. Sitting at 4-1 with Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State left on the schedule, there is a ton of football left to be played. But if the season can be salvaged for any kind of conference title run, there will need to be huge improvement. Among many, many other lessons, here's what we learned in Week 6 against Michigan State.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Lesson 1: List of unanswered questions keeps growing

What exactly did the team work to improve over the bye week? Why did they look so unprepared? Why was the play-calling so uninventive? Is a red zone touchdown really too much to ask for? How can the defense lose so much experience from last year’s team and seemingly not miss a beat, yet the offense looks like they’ve never played a snap together?

The list of questions seems unending. And with those questions comes mounting frustrations from the fanbase. It’s Year 3 in the Harbaugh era, after all, and the questions that are left to be answered should not be questions at all. Following back-to-back 10-win seasons, fans shouldn’t be asking why a team is unprepared for a primetime rivalry game at home the week after a bye.

Yes, Michigan fans are seldom patient when the team is underperforming, but it seems at this point that the frustration is warranted. After seven years of (mostly) struggles with Rich Rod and Brady Hoke, Harbaugh was supposed to fix all the issues that plagued the team and program — and through two years it seemed like he had, or he was close, at least. But Year 3 has fans sharing equal fears: At a time when the team should still be making strides, why are they regressing?

There are always excuses. The youth on the roster. The talent lost to the NFL after last season. The turnover on the coaching staff. Those are all fine, credible reasons for early-season struggles at mid-tier programs, but not at Michigan.

Now nearly halfway through the schedule, it’s time for some of these questions to be answered.

Lesson 2: Mistakes continue to plague this team

At times on Saturday, it sure seemed like Michigan was doing all it could to give the game away. That may sound harsh, but it’s true.

After a solid opening drive to the game (which, again, ended in a red zone field goal instead of a touchdown), Michigan forced MSU to punt and then began driving again. It was a great start for the Wolverines. But then Ty Isaac fumbled to give the Spartans a short field and a renewed energy.

Midway through the second quarter, Karan Higdon was called for a holding call that negated a long Michigan touchdown pass.

At the end of the first half, Michigan mounted a drive to cut into the MSU lead going into the locker room. John O’Korn connected with Sean McKeon on a 36-yard pass into Spartan territory, but then, fighting for an additional yard, McKeon was stripped.

Following the lone Michigan touchdown in the third quarter, the next three Wolverine drives ended in interceptions.

Lastly, on the final drive of the game, Michigan had an opportunity to get the ball into a manageable position for a final heave (or two) into the end zone to win it. Instead, Eddie McDoom dropped a pass from O’Korn that hit him right in the hands.

And these were just the big mistakes, not the small missed assignments. So I’ll say it again: Sloppy mistakes continue to plague this team. There’s a lack of focus, it seems, and that probably starts with the coaching staff. There may also be a lack of leadership — possibly another side effect of losing so many seniors from last year’s squad.

It’s very difficult to win championships making mistakes like these. And by difficult, I mean nearly impossible.

Lesson 3: The defense can win games, but the offense can sure lose them

The Michigan defense allowed just 14 points and 252 total yards. Those are pretty solid numbers, especially considering the first touchdown they surrendered came on a short field after a Michigan fumble. In the second half, the defense allowed just 34 total yards and zero points. In fact, no opponent has scored on Michigan in the fourth quarter this season.

The defense will keep this team in every game it plays.

The offense, however, is a different story. There were continued missed assignments. Linemen got pushed around. Receivers dropped the ball. John O’Korn made some bad throws. But worst of all, the play-calling was unimaginative and put the players in a tough position to be successful.

It’s difficult to win games when only scoring 10 points. Given the offensive struggles, there are many teams — not just MSU — that would have defeated the Wolverines on Saturday.

I thought after a bye week the overall offensive strategy would have improved, but it did not. Maybe this loss will serve as a much-needed wakeup call.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Lesson 4: Time to stop underestimating Mark Dantonio

I’m old enough to remember the dominant Michigan teams of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. I remember Charles Woodson’s interception against MSU in ’97 and I remember Lloyd Carr defeating the Spartans six-straight games from 2002-07 — and I remember hearing Mike Hart’s “little brother” comments and smiling and thinking he couldn’t be more accurate.

But times have changed. When Hart made those comments, Michigan had won 30 of the last 38 contest against the Spartans. The rivalry, in every sense, was dominated by the Wolverines. It took blown pass interference calls on final plays and home team clock administrators to beat Michigan in those days. Now the Spartans just do it with grit and will — and great coaching.

By now you may have heard this stated 100 times, but I’m going to reiterate it because I think it’s important to note: Under Mark Dantonio, MSU is 8-3 against Michigan and has covered the spread in the last 10 contests. The only game in which they didn’t cover was the first one, back in 2007, when Michigan won by four to cover a 3.5-point spread. Since then, not only has Michigan State continued to cover, but they’ve done so with force — beating the spread by an average of 13 points.

Now, Harbaugh is a lousy 1-2 against MSU. And I get that the 2015 game ended on a fluke botched punt, and that the Wolverines dominated the 2016 game until the Spartans scored a couple touchdowns late to make the score seem closer than it was.

Regardless, one thing is abundantly clear: Michigan State comes ready to play every single time they face Michigan.

It’s long overdue for Michigan to do the same.

Lesson 5: Something’s gotta change, or the next seven weeks will be very, very long

It seemed farfetched before the season, but now we’re looking at a scary reality: Losing to MSU at home, facing a pesky Indiana team on the road and then traveling to play under the lights in Happy Valley. Could this team find itself sitting at a poor 4-3 record heading into the final week of October? If nothing changes, that’s a very real possibility.

The Hoosiers always seem to play Michigan tough and, well, we all know how good Penn State can be.

Time is running out to right the ship. If Michigan wants to put this MSU loss in the rearview and make a strong push for the Big Ten title, which is very much still in play, the margin for error is microscopic.

The best teams respond to adversity with triumph. We’ll find out what kind of team this is over the next couple weeks.