Michigan State lost to Minnesota in uninspiring fashion. The game featured a poor performance from a defense that managed to generate takeaways. It also saw the first real action for Sam Leavitt.
The game’s outcome was sad but the questions generated were important. Here’s a run down.
Questions Coming Into the Game:
How many guys will leave the program after Michigan loss?
Technically two, but one of those two came back. During the week, Michigan State saw the first two truly big names enter the transfer portal. Redshirt junior Simeon Barrow and offensive tackle Blackstock both put their names in the portal.
Blackstock made sense as he is a junior college transfer that has been relatively disappointing. Injuries (on top of a designation as the backup after coming in with huge hype) have meant he had just reached his four game limit during the Michigan game to avoid burning a red shirt year, so transferring makes sense.
Barrow was the surprise as he had been named a captain for each game this year. Beyond the talent on the field, Barrow is a guy that has been a rock for this program. After putting his name in the portal for three days he withdrew it and took the field today for the Spartans. There are rumors that basketball coach Tom Izzo personally reached out to Barrow to talk him through his options. Whoever turned the tide, Barrow coming back was a jolt to the general Spartan nation psyche. Despite formally not starting against Minnesota and forfeiting the opportunity to be named a captain, the return of a clear leader of this team was a positive for the program.
Should Sam Leavitt start this week?
My answer is no. Sam Leavitt is an intriguing prospect. He is also a cherished resource. Freshman year for a QB is important. It’s usually a time to learn a much more complicated form of football at the collegiate level as well as allow the physical gifts to match the maturity needed to succeed. Many top QBs redshirt their freshman year and I’ve argued it’s irresponsible for Michigan State to burn Leavitt’s redshirt year through mismanagement. An example of that was giving him one series at the end of garbage time in the 4th game of the year.
On the other hand, after Katin Houser struggled last week, Sam Leavitt got a decent shot to show what he could do in the full garbage time against the University of Michigan’s backups. That was intriguing. Still, Katin Houser should be given a full shot to prove his worth before burning more of Leavitt’s eligibility.
During this game it became clear that the offense was not moving. Going to Leavitt in the fourth quarter with the game still within reach was the right move. Leavitt claimed in interviews during the week that he was not concerned about burning his red shirt and the offense had little option than to bring someone new in.
Houser has been given three games with fairly negative results. If this is a sign that Leavitt could potentially start the rest of the season so be it. But either way, going to him now did make sense - after it not always making sense earlier in the season.
Can the Spartan punt team learn to line up correctly?
Technically yes. And when they do they can do a decent job apparently. MSU had multiple punts inside Minnesota’s 15 yard line. If the defense could have stopped the Gophers at all it might have mattered more.
Will the Spartan players look motivated after this blow out?
The team opened the game up looking like they were motivated. The return of Simeon Barrow showed some grit that looked like an inspiring story. The problem was the motivation early on didn’t turn into much production. Yes, the Spartans recovered two fumbles - but they were as much Minnesota making mistakes as MSU making plays.
Outside of that the Spartans made the Gopher offense look strong - a week after they scored just 12 points in a terrible game against Iowa. Further, MSU’s offense looked impotent. The team looked motivated, but the production did not.
Can Michigan State stay focused enough to play well against a more evenly matched opponent in Minnesota?
This game did not seem to have a lack of focus per say. It did have a lack of execution, or ability. Coming off a game against Michigan where the talent gap was on stark display, it was easy to expect Michigan State’s players to look more equally matched against the Gophers. The problem was for most of the game MSU looked outclassed. On offense they were unable to do almost anything and on defense they were getting rolled over - when Minnesota was not turning the ball over. Focus didn’t seem to be the problem, potentially flat out ability did.
Is it Basketball season yet?
Essentially yes. Technically the season doesn’t start till next week BUT there has been one great exhibition game against Hillsdale and another tomorrow against top ten ranked Tennessee.
This cannot come fast enough.
Questions Coming Up During the Game
What happened to MSU’s defensive improvement?
The single most disappointing part of this game - a game with a lot of disappointments - was the performance of the defense.
It’s almost insane to say a unit that had three takeaways was bad. But it’s true. The defense was bad. Minnesota has struggled to throw the ball all year. Against the Spartans it looked like they were one of the best teams in the country. MSU generated only a handful of true stops against the Gophers and never when it mattered.
Worse, the game plan by the defense looked uninspired. Yes, Michigan State largely stopped Minnesota’s run, but in a game where the Gophers had two of their best running backs injured, it should have been part of the game plan to stop any pivot to the pass. Instead, MSU sold out on the run and got beat over and over and over again by the pass. That is a coaching issue.
What happened to Katin Houser’s ability to run?
After Katin Houser showed off the ability to run against Rutgers, it seemed like he brought something to the offense through his running ability. Against Minnesota this was not used. When Sam Leavitt came in and immediately started using his feet to convert first down it made the Houser lack of running even more suspect. Barring the revelation of an injury that made no sense.
What does Sam Leavitt bring to the offense?
In this game: some energy. Leavitt brought an energy and oomph to the offense that was strangely missing all game. Leavitt used his legs and his arm to convert more first downs on his opening drive than the offense did in the first three quarters.
Leavitt’s moxy sparked the Spartan offense out of its full game slumber and into the first true touchdown drive in weeks.
Why do MSU QBs look good coming in in relief then fizzle?
Yes, usually when someone comes in late in the game at the QB spot they are facing backups. Still, it’s odd that Houser can come in and give the team a spark in the 4th quarter then simply fizzle as a starter. Leavitt came in and gave a huge spark to an otherwise moribund unit. Only time will tell if he can sustain that.
The fact that his next drive immediately turned into a fumble as he was tracked down by a defensive lineman on a scramble did not bode well. Still there are growing pains obviously going on everywhere.
But to actually answer the question: I have no idea. It’s incredibly frustrating. The weirder element this year is that both QBs that came in in relief found ways to look great in that role and turn the ball over. That’s a confounding circumstance.
Questions for Next Week
- Will Sam Leavitt start next week (no longer “should”, this is now a will)?
- Can Nate Carter find a way to return to his form creating yards out of nothing?
- Can the defense regain a semblance of their early season form?
- Can the special teams continue it’s actually decent play?
- Can the team find any compelling reason fans should believe in them this season?
- Can we stop talking about football and only talk about basketball? (how about Volleyball?)