It’s the little things.
It’s the way your girlfriend perks up when you suggest Mexican food. It’s how your kids color outside the lines and smile at their chaos. It’s a cold beer after a long day.
In terms of football, it’s the little things that add up to determine the winners and losers. “It’s a game of inches” as we have all been told, and that adage remains as truthful today as it did when Bennie Oosterbaan was toting the rock.
Look no further than last weekend against Northwestern. Three plays were the difference between a 21-0 lead at halftime and the 10-7 lead the Wolverines carried in actuality. Thankfully, the Wildcats were less than the formidable.
But unlike last Saturday, the subtle difference in a few plays has swung the rivalry against Michigan and led to Jim Harbaugh’s underwhelming 3-3 record against the Spartans. These are the inches and the plays that could stand between the College Football Playoff and third in the Big Ten East, again.
Let’s take a look back at Michigan’s three most recent losses to Michigan State and the little things that cost the Wolverines victory.
2015 Michigan State
We all know the obvious one here, and we’ll get to that fever dream of a play shortly.
But with 9:25 to go in the fourth quarter, Michigan held a 23-14 lead. The Michigan defense had kept the Spartans well off their 33 points-per-game pace entering this contest, and had forced the Spartan attack to be one dimensional.
However, one defensive lapse later and Michigan State orchestrated its longest offensive play of the season. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook faked a jet sweep, a hand-off, and then connected to fullback Trevon Pendleton who rumbled 74 yards to the 1-yard line.
One play later, it’s 23-21.
Following this disastrous sequence, the two teams traded fruitless possessions ending in punts as the outcome hung in the balance. The Spartans failed to convert on fourth and long, and Michigan suddenly had the ball and a chance to salt this one away.
Michigan running back De’Veon Smith had just gained five yards on first down, with 1:42 remaining, and the ball placed at the 50-yard line. The Wolverines had two opportunities to gain five yards, a first down, and win the game.
Unfortunately, poor interior blocking and conservative play calling saw both Smith rushing attempts stuffed. Michigan only averaged 1.9 rushing yards-per-attempt, and that is how much it lost this game by. The Wolverines lined up to punt on 4th and 2.
2017 Michigan State
(Worst Spartan trolling comment found during research: Referring to Michigan Stadium as “The Big Condo.”)
This entire game was a soaking wet disaster of sequences comparable to getting a paper cut, stubbing your toe on the way to the bathroom and then squirting lemon juice on the wound instead of peroxide. And doing it all again for three hours.
But if there was one sequence, one turnover, more impactful than the rest, it has to be Michigan running back Ty Isaac’s fumble in the first quarter. While it was early, none of the other four Michigan turnovers yielded points for the Spartans. In a game where points were at a premium, this early mistake had a profound impact on the final score.
The Wolverines held a slim 3-0 lead and Michigan State had just strung together a drive of three plays and no yards before punting the ball back to Michigan. On Michigan’s third play of the drive, Isaac cut through a wide open lane on the left side of the line before being stripped by Spartan linebacker Joe Bachie. Michigan State ball on Michigan’s 46-yard line.
Six plays later, Michigan State led by four points; the Spartans would go on to win the game by four points.
2020 Michigan State
(Best Spartan trolling comment found during research: “Even the cardboard cutouts were leaving early.”)
This is the only game in the Harbaugh era rivalry with Michigan State the Wolverines never held a lead. In a game that featured Michigan quarterback Joe Milton attempting 51 passes (FIFTY-ONE!), it’s not surprising that success was so elusive.
However, Milton was not the only Wolverine to attempt a pass in this game. With 2:57 remaining in the second quarter trailing 14-7, Michigan running back Hassan Haskins took a direct snap, faked an inside run and attempted a jump pass to tight end Carter Seltzer.
Michigan State linebacker (and Ann Arbor native) Antjuan Simmons was able to tip the ball just enough to force the incompletion. The Wolverines settled for a field goal.
While a neat, habit-breaking wrinkle, it is one more suited for first down and not 3rd and four from your opponent’s six-yard line.
Four points were left on the field in a game ultimately decided by three.
Against Northwestern, a team can overcome below average sequences and still win. But against Michigan State, it’s always the little things that make the difference.