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What We Learned From the Michigan State Loss

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Before we put this one behind us forever, let’s address three things we learned this heart breaker.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning and Happy November, Michigan Wolverine faithful.

How is everyone feeling two days removed from the most recent loss to Michigan State?

The game felt like the performance of Johnny B. Goode at the end of Back to The Future. Marty McFly is in rhythm and shredding an “Oldie, where he comes from.” But then it quickly spirals into chaos and the audience is in shock about what it is transpiring.

Blowing a 30-14 second half lead left us all in a state worse than shock — familiarity.

Things more enjoyable than this game: lukewarm Milwaukee’s Best, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, audibly reading 50 Shades of Grey to your in-laws, Kyrie Irving.

A loser once said, “You learn more in defeat than you do in victory,” and we learned a lot in East Lansing on Saturday. That said, 355 days until Paul comes home.

Let’s dive into some recent revelations.

Freshman Learning Curves

On Michigan’s third offensive play, deep in its own territory, fans were introduced to the next great Wolverine wide receiver: Andrel Anthony. Quarterback Cade McNamara connected with the true freshman wide-out on a slant route Anthony took 93 yards for a touchdown. Not bad for your first career collegiate reception.

The East Lansing native finished the game with six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns. While it took Anthony half the season to record his first touch (a reverse against Northwestern just last week), the young receiver is positioned to become the X-factor the Wolverines have been missing since senior Ronnie Bell was lost for the season.

Anthony has parts of his game to clean up and to improve upon, but that’s expected with freshmen. Look no further than freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy.

The young gunslinger has been a divisive player among fans and media members alike. The game broadcast was unintentionally funny for several reasons, but none more so than FOX analyst Joel Klatt discussing McCarthy. He couldn’t figure out why fans had been dismissive of McNamara in favor of McCarthy when just last week it was Klatt himself who poured fire on the simmering quarterback conundrum debate.

McCarthy is the future of the program, whether that be in two hours or two years, his time is coming. But for now, he is an 18-year-old freshman prone to freshman mistakes. Anthony had a costly red zone holding penalty and McCarthy’s fumbled exchange with running back Blake Corum was devastating.

There is a learning curve for all first-year players. It took Anthony half a season to get up to speed, while McCarthy has played in every game this season earning some scars along the way.

But a bright future isn’t cast into eternal darkness because of a few clouded moments.

Defensive Discipline

While there were positives — like defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo relentlessly harassing Michigan State quarterback Peyton Thorne — the overturn of Hutch’s touchdown after Ojabo’s strip-sack was a crime worthy of banishment, or a long weekend with the Island Boys.

The pass defense was another positive, more than holding its own against an explosive core of receivers. But the bad outweighed the good from this unit on Saturday.

Firstly, the defensive substitutions were an abject disaster. First year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald was not prepared for the consistent tempo-shifting plays of the Spartans and he inexcusably failed to adjust during the course of the game. Somewhere, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day is smirking.

Secondly, the tackling of this unit was the worst it has been all season. The linebackers and safeties were constantly out of position and struggled to shed blockers. Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III frequently turned dead plays into explosive ones because of Michigan’s inability to finish plays.

The Michigan defense did force a pair three and outs on two of the final three Michigan State possessions to give the team a chance. However, the unit will only be remembered as the victim of Walker’s potential Heisman moment.

A bad game like this is inevitable for a first-time signal caller. But with how he has transformed the entire unit from 2020 to 2021, one bad game of growing pains does not shake my confidence in his abilities to correct these miscues this season.

Especially with the leadership of Hutchinson on this unit, we will know everything we need to know about this defense’s resolve and trajectory Saturday night against Indiana.

Return of the Mac

It’s only too fitting to quote the immortal Mark Morrison:

Well I tried to tell you so (yes, I did)

“But I guess you didn’t know, as I said the story goes

“Baby, now I got the flow.”

McNamara was excellent on Saturday, completing 28-of-44 passes for 383 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Above all, McNamara was brilliant on high pressure third downs while under pressure. Please enjoy this thread of his clutch throws.

According to Pro Football Focus, McNamara was 8-of-11 for 129 yards and one touchdown when blitzed; 11-of-16 for 139 yards and one touchdown when under pressure.

Now, let’s run through some lingering thoughts I observed on the stream of consciousness website hellscape that is Twitter dot com.

Did McNamara miss some throws? Yes, but even The Pharaoh himself, Tom Brady, misses the occasional throw, it happens. Especially if the rumors are confirmed of McNamara playing through a knee injury in the fourth quarter.

Not to mention, at least three passes were dropped by potential receivers when the ball hit them IN THE NUMBERS. Corum might still be running if he hauls in that first-quarter pass.

Can McNamara be better in a two-minute situation? Yes, and there is no resistance here on that criticism. But I loved the way he immediately addressed this flaw in the post-game press conference like a team leader should. No excuses, just ownership, and improvement next week.

Many of my fellow Michigan writers like to regurgitate the tired line, “Well, we have seen McNamara’s ceiling.” Have we? The kid just threw for almost 400 yards, while completing 64% of his passes, in the rain, in East Lansing, without a consistent rushing attack.

If this is his ceiling, that’s one hell of a ceiling.

McNamara let all the people know he’s still here to run the show.