Two years ago, 7-0 Michigan and 7-0 Michigan State met in East Lansing for the Paul Bunyan Trophy, bragging rights and the preservation of a perfect record. Spartan Stadium was sold out and the vitriol was as thick as the fog in the air. The last time Michigan made the trip west, linebacker Devin Bush famously assisted with on-field maintenance and added another layer of hate to Michigan’s football civil war.
If I simply told you the Wolverines out-gained the Spartans 552-395, won the possession battle by 9:40 and held a 16-point second-half lead, you would assume victory. But on this day, the Spartans were able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and left everyone wearing maize and blue stunned in disbelief.
How did this happen? Sure, the obvious always comes to mind: Michigan State All-American running back Kenneth Walker ran possessed to a total of 23 carries for 197 yards and five touchdowns. Or even lower hanging fruit, “the refs screwed us” with the overturned David Ojabo strip-sack touchdown resulted in a four-point swing, which was ultimately the points difference in the game.
But let’s go beyond the obvious. Even putting aside the costly Michigan miscues: Blake Corum’s dropped pass, Cade McNamara missing a corner blitz, J.J. McCarthy and Corum’s mesh fumble, playing against tempo, and RJ Moten’s dropped interception, the Wolverines had ample opportunities to win this game.
Ultimately, the biggest difference in this one came down to the battles and decisions on fourth down.
Michigan State faced the final down seven times and wisely punted on five of them. Of those punts, the Spartans consistently flipped the field by averaging a staggering 55.8 yards per punt. The two times they didn’t punt, Michigan State kept its offense on the field.
The first time Spartan head coach Mel Tucker decided to go for it, Michigan State was trailing 13-7 in the second quarter and had the ball on the U-M 48-yard line, needing to reach the 47. Instead of a conventional short-yardage play, the Spartans drew up a slow-developing, fake end-around, wide receiver delay. The window dressing distracted U-M corner Gemon Green and resulted in a 40-yard completion to Jalen Nailor.
Kenneth Walker scored a touchdown on the very next play.
Late in the third quarter with the Spartans trailing 30-14 and the game slipping away, Tucker decided to roll the dice again. Needing four yards on the U-M 29, the Michigan State offense defied conventional wisdom.
In this situation, an offense has a lot of plays at their disposal and most feature quick passes on either underneath (slants, crossers, hitches) or the shallow outside (outs, comebacks, whips). The Wolverines did a great job eliminating the logical conversion routes, but the Spartans were never looking in the conventional direction.
This was a designed slot fade for Jayden Reed to take advantage of Michigan’s slow safety rotation. Lining up in the slot, Dax Hill is playing trail technique expecting Moten to help with anything over the top. Moten gains too much depth toward the middle of the field and Spartan quarterback Payton Thorne dropped a 28-yard dime for the conversion.
Walker scored a touchdown on the very next play.
Now, compare this success to Michigan’s fourth down opportunities. The Wolverines faced nine fourth downs resulting in four field goals, two conversion attempts and three punt attempts.
The good news was the Wolverines punted twice and managed to put both inside the 20. The bad news is a third punt was attempted after a drive-killing fourth and one false start, but the ball was never kicked. Michigan punter Brad Robbins bobbled the snap, gathered, rushed for the first-down marker, and was stopped short turning the ball over on downs.
Michigan’s red zone execution was equally as disappointing. In total, the Wolverines were in the red zone six times and settled for four field goals: fourth and three at the MSU 8; fourth and two at the MSU 20; fourth and five at the MSU 17; fourth and eight at the MSU 18.
Thank god for kicker Jake Moody.
But even after the bobbled punt, a plethora of mistakes and the field goal frenzy, the Wolverines had the ball with about five minutes to go and a chance to win the game. Three plays into the drive, Michigan was faced with a fourth-and-four from its own 28-yard line.
On the first gamble of the afternoon, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis drew up the perfect play to Mikey Sainristil on a quick slant for an easy conversion. McNamara could have even had Corum on the swing pass if he wanted. The drive continued.
The Wolverines slowly built momentum and marched down the field until they were again facing another fourth down. On the Michigan State 31-yard line with 1:47 remaining, Harbaugh elected to not kick the field goal and kept his offense out there for a three-yard conversion attempt.
To his credit, Gattis again drew up an excellent play to Sainristil. Corum was flanked out wide with Cornelius Johnson to his inside, and Sainristil inside of CJ closest to the line of scrimmage. Designed to clear out this side of the defense and create a rub route to the inside, Corum runs a skinny post and CJ runs a slant perfectly into Sainristil’s defender.
Sainristil broke open just as designed, however, McNamara made a hot read and fired an incompletion to CJ on the slant. Now, you can blame the officials for missing a holding call on CJ, but that’s lazy and doesn’t excuse McNamara from making the wrong decision.
Michigan would have one more possession culminating in a McNamara interception, sealing the victory for the Spartans, 37-33. Michigan State was the better team that day and this loss fundamentally changed Michigan’s approach for every game following.
A loser once said, “You learn more in defeat than victory,” and against Michigan State, the Wolverines learned how to beat Ohio State.
Michigan commandeered Michigan State’s aggressive, no-field goal mentality to beat Ohio State later that season and turned the aggression up to 11 in 2022.
Michigan fourth-down conversions rankings:
- 2021: Michigan (No. 70 nationally; No. 7 in the Big Ten)
- 2022: Michigan (No. 2 nationally; No. 1 in the Big Ten)
As much as the loss to the Spartans hurt, a victory over Ohio State is not possible without this humbling defeat. This loss ultimately propelled the Wolverines to reach unimaginable heights in 2021. Heights that eventually led to a Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff berth, before a precipitous crash back to reality against Georgia.
More on that in Part Two.