Michigan State football went for its annual exam against Ohio State and came up with a failing grade. Ohio State blew Michigan State out 38-3 and essentially stopped playing aggressive football at halftime. The game continued the “lost season” trend of the year and left many questions to be answered.
Let’s get into them.
Questions Coming Into the Game:
How much does a Big Ten win change the fan sentiment about this team?
The fanbase was notably less fatalistic coming into this game. A variety of factors contributed to this. While the win was part of it the more important factors seemed to be: a sense that the Ohio State game was inconsequential (read: everyone was resigned to a loss so who cares); and the start of basketball season (even if that felt disappointing - at least it was something new to be upset about).
This is officially a lost season for football (not exactly breaking news). Going into this game, the interest was mostly, “let’s see how this goes” and occasionally, “how could we duplicate our historical upsets?” None of that was all that intense.
Who should start for MSU next week at QB?
Should or did? Should really wasn’t a coaching decision, it was an eligibility decision by Sam Leavitt. Houser got the start after showing decently in last week’s game in split time with Leavitt. There is still a strong argument that Leavitt is clearly the better prospect but the Houser start does make a lot of sense. He’s young, he has clear talent, and should not be written off.
Will Sam Leavitt burn his redshirt? (and should he?)
While there was official word coming into the game the lack of Leavitt in the game seems answer enough. The red shirt will stay intact. Whether that means Leavitt explores the transfer portal or not is a discussion for a later date.
Post game it was clear that while Leavitt traveled with the team as an emergency QB option, the decision to preserve the red shirt was clearly the priority.
The decision by Leavitt is completely understandable and does not formally announce his departure from MSU (keep repeating that last part, Spartan fanbase). The decision is also an indictment of this coaching staff and how they have handled Leavitt. There were multiple ways the staff could have looked ahead to preserve the red shirt year while playing the exciting true freshman more than the ridiculously limited - and almost entirely ineffectual to the season - amount of plays.
Can the defense keep up with Ohio State’s offense?
No. An emphatic no. The first two possessions for Ohio State resulted in touchdowns. Neither with much resistance from Michigan State. The Buckeyes have an offense that many are questioning. The hope was Michigan State could leverage an improving defense to keep the game close. Two defensive series in and OSU was up 14-0. By the first play in the 2nd quarter it was 21-0. The defense could not keep the Spartans in this game.
Can Michigan State’s special teams unit avoid another utterly embarrassing mistake?
In the first half the special teams played better. A converted fake punt and a 52-yard field goal were great. The embarrassing problems still existed. The kick off team after the field goal somehow was offside (which begs the question: HOW???). And again the punting unit committed a pre-snap penalty. It’s beyond ridiculous the number of self inflicted mistakes the special teams make.
How many trick plays will Jay Johnson try to shoehorn into the game plan?
The fake punt doesn’t count. That was a special teams play and an obvious choice in the situation. The first half did see the Spartan offense get more first downs than might have been expected. None of them utilized trick plays.
By the end of the game the offense simply look basic and lost. The bar is so low for this unit to be even marginally impressive. Still they didn’t even meet that bar.
Questions Coming Up During the Game
Why is Mangham getting the playing time that used to go to Nate Carter?
Early on in the game it was clear that Mangham was the go to running back option. Mangham had some good runs early on to help make this semi sensible, but the lack of early use of Nate Carter was still mystifying.
Carter had been bottled up of late but that seemed more about the play calling and defenses keying on him in obvious run situations. Not using the most consistently productive offensive player was strange to say the least.
There is the potential that Carter was getting run down (something the announcers floated mid way through the game). If the coaches were moving away from only featuring Carter to give him a breather, that is both smart and dumb. Smart to find some alternative to Carter, dumb because it was a disservice to Carter in a showcase game.
Carter was the more productive running back in this game. For his future he wanted to show he could produce against Ohio State. Instead, the Spartans seemed to prefer to go to Mangham. Another hard to decipher decision in a season full of them.
How much has Katin Houser grown during this season?
Simple answer is a lot. The more important question is, “is it enough?” Houser is still raw. He has obvious capabilities but also some obvious flaws. His accuracy is substantially lower than you want out of a starting quarterback.
On paper he throws almost no interceptions, but this game showed once again that stat is largely due to luck than decision making. Houser displayed that luck late in the first quarter throwing incomplete into the flat - a pass that probably should have been a pick-six.
Houser’s footwork and decision making in the pocket have improved. Facing a lot of pressure in this game you could see he was more comfortable moving in the pocket and deciding when to run. Even if the improved decision making isn’t resulting in higher completion percentages (or any significant offensive gains), it’s still a valuable improvement.
Houser is the QB the rest of the way for this season. That means one more opportunity to look decent against Indiana and another most likely futile effort to look competitive against Penn State. Houser needs to show he can move the offense at least in Indiana, something that has been sorely lacking in his extended playing time.
Maliq Carr entered the game in the second half, why?
Maliq Carr has been a disappointment this year (in a year full of disappointments it’s been less discussed than I would have expected). Beyond simply underperforming expectations, his season has been hampered by injuries and ineffective offense around him.
Coming into this game, Carr was seen as likely to play. For the first half he was not present. Halfway through the second half, Carr appeared as a slot receiver on a run play. It was a nonsensical use of a player they see as an offensive threat. If he was available then why not use him? If he is injured why push him onto the field (even as a not at all effective decoy)?
Carr was eventually used in a screenplay at the end of the third quarter. That made the decision not to have him on the field in the first half even harder to understand.
Are there positives to take from this game/season?
Down the road, yes. This year, while lost, could be the foundation of some positives. The defense has some young players that could evolve into a solid core. The Houser/Leavitt situation still has the ability to leave the Spartans with a QB worth building around.
The concern is that every single player referenced could be gone in about a month. So this season could be a short term loss and the dark hole the next head coach will have to rebuild out of. The hope is while the transfer portal may take away emerging players, it will also bring in some solid building blocks with the new head coach.
Questions for Next Week
- Indiana is essentially the last chance for a feel good moment in the season, can the team (and fan base) stay focused and enthusiastic for that game?
- How will Katin Houser look against an opponent closer to this team’s level of skill?
- Can the defense show true improvement against a more even skill matchup?
- Will we see any improvement in the special teams? Let’s call it a potentially penalty free outing?
- If this game against Indiana is an audition for next year, who would you prioritize keeping on the roster?
- What will MSU fans remember about this season (beyond the terrible stuff)?