Michigan State lost 49 to nothing in a game that felt like it could have been worse. Nothing worked for the Spartans. The offense could not do anything, and got lucky they ended with only two interceptions. Even if the defense felt like they played better by comparison, the results were the same as Michigan scored on almost every single possession. The grades reveal how ugly it got - particularly some questionable coaching decisions.
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: Michigan is clearly one of the better teams in the country. MSU has seen an elite team in Washington, so they know what it’s like to play top teams. Still, Michigan should be one of the toughest tests of the year. MSU is not expected to win this game, nor even keep it close. Anything positive should help MSU on the curve grade.
Offense: F (Game Specific Grade) / D+ (On a curve based on competition)
The first half saw Michigan State’s offensive do almost nothing. There were two semi positive things in the first two quarters: Nate Carter and Katin Houser’s luck.
Nate Carter looked like the rare Spartan athlete that looked like he belonged on the field. MSU fell behind so early that it was hard to make Carter a major factor, yet he still stood out as a rare positive.
By contrast, Katin Houser stood out for how lucky he was not to have four interceptions. Every single Spartan possession in the first half almost ended in an interception. Yes, Michigan was dominating the line of scrimmage and Houser was clearly seeing pressure. That said, Houser also proved he was not ready for this game. He had enough time to set up for some throws that he just botched. Michigan defensive backs dropped interception after interception. Michigan State’s offense was ineffectual in the first half. They were lucky they were not worse.
In the second half they saw the worse. Houser threw an awful pick six before eventually being replaced by Sam Leavitt for the fourth quarter. A Leavitt interception (that bounced off the hands of receiver Tre Mosley) just made things even sadder. Leavitt didn’t have Houser’s luck and the offense didn’t have anything with either of them.
Michigan’s defense is elite. They have stifled teams all year. MSU was not going to light it up, but this output was still below even the most measured of expectations.
Defense: F (Game Specific Grade) / C- (On a curve based on competition)
Early on Michigan State’s defense simply looked over matched. The players showed energy and fight on the first defensive stand of the game, yet Michigan still methodically went down the field and scored a touchdown. This looked less like a coaching problem and more a simple talent disparity. MSU’s defense just looked unable to challenge Michigan’s athletes at any level. MSU appeared to stand (a bit?) strong against the run, it was not enough early on. JJ McCarthy simply scrambled to strikes down the field that ate up big yardage and produced touchdown after touchdown.
MSU in the first half threw blitzes at Michigan to almost no impact. The defensive approach DC Scottie Hazleton found success with over the last few games looked ineffectual against the Wolverines. Unlike so much else going on for the Spartans this year, the defense felt like it was actually in the right place at the right times for much of the first two quarters. The problem is regardless of how well you position yourself, if you physically cannot match up with the guy across from you, you will fail. MSU learned that the hard way early on.
Michigan State technically had two stops in the first half. One was a big stand on a third down. The other was a gift from the officials that negated a half closing score by Michigan. Regardless, the half ended 28-0. That’s simply not good enough.
In the end, MSU’s defense let Michigan roll over them throughout the game. Even if they looked better coached then they have in some years, this unit failed to do their jobs. The curve grade is a bit better because a few individual Spartans are starting to show up and they basically did what they were expected to do, which was lose by a lot.
Special Teams: F (Game Specific Grade) / F (On a curve based on competition)
At the end of the first quarter, special teams found a way to screw up again. Almost inconceivably the Spartans had another illegal formation on a punt. Luckily the re-punt saw great coverage by MSU’s players but the repeat of the penalty from the Rutgers game feels simply awful. There is no excuse to have these types of penalties.
Mid way through the second quarter special teams found another way to hurt themselves. A kick interference call against Alante Brown was just sad. It’s an effort penalty that was clearly the players fault (unlike the formation issue which is more a coaching error). Still, the first two quarters featured the unit once again hurting the team more than helping them. This is not Michigan being better, this is MSU being terrible.
While the Special Teams didn’t fall to the depths of the previous two games (it’s hard to lose the game every single week) it did nothing to help. The only time the special teams stood out was when they committed penalties. This unit continues to get failing grades. Even worse, it is all self inflicted, so they get no help on the curve.
Coaching: D (Game Specific Grade) / C (On a curve based on competition)
Michigan State got outplayed at every level and in every facet of this game. The difference in skill on the field was apparent. It’s taken years for Michigan to build the roster they have right now, and MSU was still mid Mel Tucker talent build up before the chaos of this year. The players MSU had on the field were simply not able to keep up. For most of the game, it seemed more of a talent disparity than a coaching problem.
As recruiting is a coaching responsibility, this can be held against the coaching staff.
The lone bright note was the defensive scheme seemed like it had players technically in the right spots for most of the night, just not able to compete one on one. Beyond that, the nicest thing that can be said is that it didn’t seem like offensive coordinator Jay Johnson was the problem on offense. Instead, Katin Houser and the offense just could not get anything going. Blame that on Johnson, or on Houser, or just on the inability to play with Michigan. All three options would be fair.
Still, this game featured a lot of failures that felt related to coaching.
Wasting a timeout early in the third quarter simply because your team wasn’t able to set up for a 3rd and 1 play is embarrassing. To make it worse, Michigan looked even more out of sorts and MSU should have just snapped it and run up the gut. Coming out of that timeout and running a pitch play for a loss of yardage added insult to injury. That is clearly coaching.
Not controlling the emotions of your players and seeing penalties pile up is also on coaching. This staff has proven incapable of keeping the players focused on winning (or just playing even half decently) in the second half over the past two games. The burst of penalties in the third quarter felt related to that lack of control over the players.
The coaching on special teams is so far below par to question the need to simply let the players coach themselves. A pee wee football team can line up correctly on a punt. MSU cannot.
In a final move that deserves scrutiny the coaching staff switched out Katin Houser for true freshman Sam Leavitt. Acknowledging that Houser was not playing well and Noah Kim was reportedly injured, putting Leavitt in was mismanagement. Houser is yet another game closer to burning his red shirt year. It seems unfair to Leavitt to potentially burn that important asset for a season that is clearly lost.
There may not have been a coaching plan that got MSU to be competitive with Michigan this year. That’s an excuse that helps the curve, but still results in a failing grade on the objective grade.
Overall: F (Game Specific Grade) / D (On a curve based on competition)
This game was never going to be pretty. Michigan is clearly among one of the best teams in the country this year. MSU has proven repeatedly that they are not. Still, the beat down that the Spartans took looked bad.
The Spartans found ways to undermine the rare moments of success. Penalties killed drives and suspect play from QB Katin Houser will raise questions going forward.
These coaches are not getting the best out of this roster. This roster may also simply not be very good. Regardless, this was a failing effort with almost no positives. Even on the curve, this was barely a D.