Michigan State lost a winnable game to Iowa. The stars seemed to align for the Spartans to put their season back on some semi solid ground when the Hawkeye QB Cade McNamara went down early in the game. From there, MSU’s defense mostly dominated. They did their job. The problem is everything else fell apart.
The special teams unit gifted Iowa 10-points, and the offense struggled to three field goals - one of them from 57-yards out. Add in the second week in a row of four offensive turnovers and the outcome was inevitable. The deflating way the team collapsed down the stretch will fester over the upcoming bye week.
How the Grades Work: The “Game Specific Grade” is an attempt to step back and ignore who they are playing and look at the performance through the lens of just this game. The grade based “on a curve” is an attempt to take the performance and scale it based on the quality of the opponent.
Details of the Curve for this Game: Iowa is an unbalanced team. Their strong defense is often let down by their anemic offense. In this game, Iowa’s defense didn’t look like their recent ferocious selves, but they clearly contributed to MSU’s offensive futility. Iowa’s suspect offense got even weaker when their starting QB went down with an injury on the second offensive series. All in all, Iowa should have matched up fairly well with MSU, even potentially allowing MSU to show it had the advantage. So not doing well in some areas will make the curve grade even worse.
Offense: F (Game Specific Grade) / D (On a curve based on competition)
9 offensive points is not enough to win. When 3 of those points came on an unlikely 57-yard field goal, it’s clear this offense has a chronic problem.
This offense is simply not flowing. Jay Johnson looked like he had modified some of his approach in the first half to play to Noah Kim’s strengths. He also stopped calling for up tempo possessions after first down conversions - this seemed to let Kim stay focused and not rush the ball.
Still, three interceptions, a fumble, and multiple penalties down the stretch that were unforced errors is simply bad.
The loss of Carr early to injury clearly impacted Michigan State. He was Kim’s favorite target early on and was having the best game of his season. Still, he has not been that powerful an influence to explain why his absence sent the offense completely off track.
The young receivers in this game did not get separation and Kim was stuck throwing the ball away constantly in the second half. This led to an offense stuck in the mud. They were saved by a defensive touchdown and, for a while, by stellar special teams plays. But too many drives that went nowhere and four offensive turnovers meant this game was unwinnable.
The offense stagnated the entire second half and once again were the reason this team lost. Iowa has a good defense but it is not that good. Noah Kim looks like someone to strongly consider moving on from at this point. His stretches of accuracy are getting shorter and his interceptions still look bad in a variety of ways. If Katin Houser is not the answer, and Sam Leavitt is not ready then the fans need to know that. The players need to know that on the field (maybe they do behind the scenes).
Defense: A-(Game Specific Grade) / B (On a curve based on competition)
Overall the defense played a fantastic game. While still having warts and concerns, this was a huge step forward.
First to think on the negatives: On the first drive of the game, Michigan State’s drop coverage approach got exposed. Iowa drove the ball at will until stopping themselves by remembering they are Iowa. Michigan State brought pressure that helped a bit, but this felt more like Iowa stopping itself.
On Iowa’s lone touchdown drive in the first half the defense completely melted down. Long plays made longer by dumb penalties made the score way too easy.
The positive was that the touchdown drive was surrounded by three Iowa 3-and-out possessions. The first almost had two safeties and saw Cade McNamara go down with an injury. After that, MSU clearly benefited from McNamara being out and found ways to stack the box and play more aggressively on defense. Even the defensive backs were closer to the line of scrimmage than they have been in weeks.
Two turnovers is also a big way to help the day. Angelo Gross collected his second interception in as many weeks and Cal Haladay took a gift of a fumble back for a touchdown. The timing of these were key as Michigan State came out of the half time and immediately turned it over. Responding to that with a first play fumble recovery for a touchdown then an opportunistic defensive performance that grabbed the interception on the next possession helped change this game.
In the end the defense played well. This is the second straight performance that gives hope this unit could be the strength of the team. If the young defensive backs can stop committing penalties, and the front four can stop hitting the QB late, this unit could be poised for a big jump. MSU was in this game because of the defense, and the unit almost outscored the offense.
The A- was well earned in this game. The curve grade is a lot lower because Iowa’s offense is not particularly good, and it was playing with its backup QB. Still, the defense was the positive highlight for MSU in this game.
Special Teams: C (Game Specific Grade) / C (On a curve based on competition)
What a difference a week makes. The special teams were simply atrocious last week. This week it was a completely different story - at least at the beginning. Right from the start Tyrell Henry took the first kickoff return from inside the endzone on a hard run out past the 20. Compared to the week before’s fair catch on the 15 yard line, it seemed like the approach would be different.
The kicking game absolutely delivered in this game. Until it didn’t.
An early punt that died on the 3 yard line setup Iowa’s first 3-and-out, almost turned into a safety twice and led to a harassed Cade McNamara falling to the turf and leaving the game. Going into the 4th quarter another fantastic punt pinned Iowa on their own 5-yard line. A field position victory that was undermined by a pass interference penalty that allowed Iowa to move the ball and start converting first downs.
The 57-yard field goal at the end of the first half was incredible. That is a big time kick and a weapon MSU will need if they hope to pull of some upsets.
Then things started to go less well. The miss on the 50-yard attempt at the end of the third quarter was disappointing and understandable. That’s a long kick and it was Jonathan Kim’s 4th attempt. The shanked punt that gave Iowa the ball on MSU’s 38 yard line was beyond disappointing. That led to a field goal for Iowa.
After Michigan State’s offense fizzled yet again, the punt team went out and sent a line drive punt that turned into a return for a touchdown. The offense’s inability to get a touchdown is why this game was lost, but the special teams unit cannot give the opponent 10-points. This game showed us the special teams could be a big part of a future victory. It also showed its capable of being part of why MSU loses. And for the second week in a row, that will be the lasting image this unit leaves.
The C is well earned here. Because for part of the game the special teams were A+ and part of the game they were another F. The C average feels right.
Coaching: B- (Game Specific Grade) / C (On a curve based on competition)
Generally the coaches had the team looking more prepared in all phases of the game then they had at least since the Richmond game if not for the whole season.
There was a moment early on where this game could have gone off the rails. MSU let Iowa roll over them on the opening drive before Iowa found ways to settle for a field goal (3 drops didn’t exactly help Iowa). Both teams then traded possessions and field position before MSU went on a long drive that resulted in an interception in the end zone. It had an ominous feeling to it. When Iowa turned that turnover into their own touchdown drive - assisted by multiple MSU penalties it felt like this game was about to get messy. Credit goes to the coaches who kept the team focused and helped turn the Spartans around. At least for a little while.
When things were going well, there were still mistakes made, like the decision to go for it on 4th and 1 on their own 28 in the 3rd quarter. A truly great defensive stand kept the ensuing Iowa possession only to a very long field goal.
Still the end result is all too familiar. Despite the Spartans looking more organized, they ran out of ideas, steam and will in the second half. As the offense went from aggressive to inert, it left the defense trying to save the day over and over again. Add the special teams giving Iowa 10-points and you end up with a loss.
The meltdown in all phases of the game in the final quarter feels ominous. Early in the game the coaches could turn the tide against bad momentum, late in the game there was no such turnaround available to them.
The penalties, the turnovers, and the lack of discipline overall sits on the coaches bill for this game.
The coaching may not have been the reason they lost - at some point they are hamstrung by the players they have, but they recruited these players. They believed this was the team that would start showing a brighter future for MSU. None of that is appearing.
The B- is mostly buoyed by a renaissance from Scottie Hazelton and his defense. The rest of the staff just didn’t do enough to keep this team from sinking in a winnable situation.
Overall: C (Game Specific Grade) / C- (On a curve based on competition)
This game was winnable. The obvious problem is the Spartans still lost.
In some areas MSU is showing real progress. The defense is suggesting it could be relied on moving forward, when it’s not playing top ten teams. Of course the Spartans have two to three of those type teams still to play this year but I digress.
The special teams went from unwatchable last week to a revelation this week to giving 10-points to the Hawkeyes. Perhaps there is real hope for improvement there.
Unfortunately, the offense looks like it’s actively hurting this team. The general sense of collapse late in this game matched the growing frustration of watching the offense flail. If it weren’t for Nathan Carter, there would not be a single reliable part of the offense. For the second straight week MSU out gains its opponent and loses the game.
The team wide sense of collapse at the end of the game was concerning for the outlook for this team. While the season may have soured with Mel Tucker’s firing and the Washington game, losing this winnable game may be when the on field effort truly evaporated.