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Michigan State Limps to Loss Against Minnesota: Post Game Grades for The Spartans

A season mired in dysfunction took a stumble into sad territory in an ugly loss.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Minnesota Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State came into this game with just a hint of positive buzz. If you’re a gambler, you saw movement in money towards MSU being able to cover the spread or even win. The late week revelation that Simeon Barrow withdrew from the transfer portal to join the team fit a narrative that MSU was going to come out finally rejuvenated and play well against a more evenly matched opponent.

Instead MSU looked mostly dead on arrival. The offense was putrid through three quarters under Katin Houser and briefly better under Freshman Sam Leavitt before turning the ball over twice.

The defense was shockingly even worse - despite posting three takeaways. A truly confounding statement.

Here are the grades for this limp fish of a game from the Spartans football team.

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: The curve for this game will be a bit different. Minnesota was not expected to be great in most phases of the game. That means in some phases the curve grade is expected to be lower than the objective grade. In other areas MSU is actually being compared to themselves rather than Minnesota. Example: special teams. The Spartan struggles in this phase of the game are so prolific that the curve is based on any sign of competent play by the team and less on how well the opponent does.

Offense: F (Game Specific Grade) / F (On a curve based on competition)

Michigan State started the game as a Jekyll and Hyde routine. The defense immediately forced a turnover and the offense squandered it. Starting on Minnesota’s 26 yard line, the offense gained about five yards before settling for a field goal. Helpful to get a field goal but none of that was done by the offense.

Repeating that outcome immediately via a second fumble by Minnesota felt like futility at its worst. On 3rd and 1, the most experienced receiver for MSU, Tre Mosley again dropped a ball and left the offense going for a field goal.

MSU proved itself to be completely inept in the first 25 minutes of game time. Despite two turnovers giving them great field position, the offense generated 45 yards, two field goals and two first downs - the second of those first downs on a suspect pass interference call. Beyond the gimme field goals, effectively absolutely nothing. Worse, Katin Houser had yet another pass that should have been a pick six he was lucky to have the Gophers drop.

MSU for the first three quarters of the game generated a relatively anemic 166 yards. Three plays essentially accounted for more than 75% of that total. The Spartan offense was feast or famine. A long completion that looked like a prayer or futile offense. In that time Nate Carter had one run that looked impressive. It was unfortunately the first game that Carter looked human and incapable of creating yards after contact. The offense essentially earned less total yardage than the Gopher’s lead running back.

In the fourth quarter, MSU went to Sam Leavitt. It immediately changed things. His touchdown was the first in three games and the first that came on a true full field drive (Houser’s touchdown against Rutgers was off a turnover deep inside Rutgers territory) in much longer. It’s awful how many weeks it had been since MSU was able to score on a legitimate touchdown drive. On the positive side, Leavitt sparked the team.

Leavitt unfortunately followed up that promising series with a fumble on the second play of his second drive. It effectively ended the game.

Michigan State was playing a Minnesota defense that while decent at times was not a powerhouse. Despite excellent early field position the offense generated almost no true offense for three quarters. In the fourth quarter it took a backup QB scrambling all over the field to make anything real happen. After that, the backup QB had two turnovers. This was a full game failure of the entire unit.

Defense: C (Game Specific Grade) / F (On a curve based on competition)

A fumble recovery on the second offensive play was a great start for the MSU defense. Aggressive play that was largely wasted by the offense, as it fizzled into a field goal that should be credited to the defense.

Getting a second fumble gifted to them - after essentially letting Minnesota gain a bunch of yards - was incredible.

The problem in the first half was either Minnesota turned the ball over or they ran all over the MSU defense. The Spartan defense only gave up 10 points in the first half, but that was a hundred percent on the defense.

The special teams pinned Minnesota behind their own 10-yard line twice. The Gopher response was to pass the ball all over the place and gain yards in chunks. After weeks of improvement from the Spartan defense, the first half was an indictment of the true talent and coaching of this unit.

In the second half it started much the same. Minnesota rolled over the Spartan defense until a terrible throw resulted in an interception by Michigan State. Three turnovers in the first three quarters of a game should mean MSU was doing much better at that point. Instead it was a tight game because of the way MSU’s defense either got a turnover or let Minnesota gain yards. There was almost no in-between during the first three quarters.

In the fourth quarter the defense solidified itself as the unit that let this game get away from them. It’s unfathomable to blame a loss on a defense that generated three turnovers but that’s where this team is this year. The defense took advantage of mistakes by Minnesota but could only rarely force a traditional stop. When the Spartans needed a stop to keep the game close the defense simply could not deliver.

The grade is bad within the game, the fact that Minnesota’s offense is objectively not good makes the curve grade way worse.

Special Teams: B+ (Game Specific Grade) / A (On a curve based on competition)

The game started with two early punts, each without incident. The second was a booming kick of 54-yards that pinned Minnesota back inside their own 10-yard line.

The early highlight came when the Spartans blocked a field goal. Simeon Barrow, fresh off returning from the transfer portal, got his fingers on the kicked ball and blocked it.

From there, the special teams built on the positives to have a solid first half. They had two punts downed inside Minnesota’s 10 yard line.

In the second half, the first notable play by the Special Teams was the 53-yard field goal attempt. That was a gutsy call to even attempt that kick. Going wide and missing was simply a reminder that there are limits to MSUs kicker Jonathan Kim.

The surprise on-side kick mid way through the fourth quarter would have been nice to recover, but that is a gamble regardless of the team. The decision is more of a couching question than a question on the unit. MSU looked ready to try and recover the ball, they simply didn’t. Sometimes that happens.

The special teams unit gets a good grade for a game where the punting game was on point (and blessedly format penalty free). They get an even better grade on the curve - as this curve has nothing to do with Minnesota. Let’s call it the “special bus curve”. MSU’s special teams has been so bad, seeing a game where they have a highlight play (the blocked field goal) and generally play well it’s a huge step forward for this unit.

Coaching: F (Game Specific Grade) / D+ (On a curve based on competition)

Michigan State’s coaching deserves credit again for keeping this team technically together. The team only lost four players to the transfer portal during the 30-days after Mel Tucker was fired. The fifth player, Simeon Barrow, put his name in the portal then returned to the Spartans. The culture Harlan Barnett has created to get that outcome deserves credit. Unfortunately, that’s about it.

The offense and defense were largely terrible in the first half. Jay Johnson’s offense looked completely impotent. Gaining 70 yards in the first half is putrid. The defense allowed only 10 points but also 246 yards - despite recovering two fumbles from Minnesota. The first half made it look like the only things the Gophers feared was their own mistakes NOT the MSU defense. MSU made Minnesota’s substantially suspect passing game look great for the first two quarters, and that’s not acceptable in anyway.

MSU’s decision making at the end of the first half was inexplicable. Down 10 to 6, MSU had two timeouts and the ball with just over 30 seconds left. On the first play from scrimmage they ran up the middle for a first down. Instead of calling a timeout or moving with urgency they let the clock expire. MSU received the second half kick off, but that waste of even a long shot opportunity in a game that tight was cleary a mistake.

MSU in the third quarter looked simply terrible. The offensive scheme stil didn’t work and the defense got rolled for another touchdown for Minnesota. In the fourth quarter it got more interesting again.

The decision to bring in Sam Leavitt finally looked like the right decision (see my many previous critiques of this move). Leavitt gave the team a spark, and Houser has now had three starts. The early limitations seem clear there.

Going for a surprise on-side kick after MSU’s touchdown was gutsy. It didn’t work so it’s easy to criticize. To further defend the decision, MSU’s defense hadn’t shown any ability to stop the Gopher offense so it may not have mattered if Minnesota started at mid field or on their own 20. If anything it may have preserved more time on the clock for the Spartans to get the ball back after the inevitable Minnesota touchdown.

In the end the grade on the coaches is about the offense and defensive output. The defense had three takeaways and still got steam rolled. The offense produced almost nothing. Even taking into account an anomalous drive by Sam Leavitt that looked good, the game still ended with two straight MSU turnovers.

The objective grade is a failure. The curve is a bit higher for reasons that have nothing to do with Minnesota. Like the special teams grade, this coaching staff’s curve is now based off of expectation. The staff finally got the special teams to be something better than dead weight and they held this team together off the field for one more week. Beyond that though… it was another ugly performance.

Overall: F (Game Specific Grade) / F (On a curve based on competition)

It’s getting harder to find positives in Michigan State’s games. The losses to legit powerhouses like Washington and Michigan were dispiriting but understandable. The collapses against Iowa and Rutgers felt like heart breaking missed opportunities. This loss just felt like a terrible football team continuing to be exactly who they are: terrible, regardless of competition.

After improvement early in the season the defense played terribly today - inconceivably true despite snagging three takeaways. There was no discernable coaching approach that did anything to disrupt Minnesota. In fact, the approach took a Minnesota team known for running the ball and turned them into a top flight pass offense. That’s unacceptable from coaching and players.

Offensively this team is completely lost. It does not seem to matter who is playing QB. Even Nate Carter looked overwhelmed in this game.

Outside of that, the few gutsy calls by MSU (the on-side kick) just didn’t work out.

MSU got beat. By a not great Big Ten team. It solidified this as a lost season with minimal hope for another win.

How do you grade Michigan State for this game?