Michigan State took advantage of its last good opportunity for a win this season by beating Indiana. The game highlighted many of the concerns the Spartans have had all season but it also brought in some hope for the future.
Let’s dive into the questions.
Questions Coming Into the Game:
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?
Lansing State Journal columnist, Graham Couch, said on his podcast this week, “the football season effectively ended last week.” He referenced a sharp decline in web traffic to football stories in the days after the Ohio State loss. He has a point. Coming into the Ohio State game the attention had clearly waned on football as it felt most fans saw the game as a coming disaster rather than a game. Having that prediction proved accurate made a matchup against one of the other worst teams in the Big Ten less than exciting.
Plus, as much as people try to make the “Old Brass Spittoon” a thing, I know almost no fans that really care. Indiana is not a team Spartan fans particularly care about, and in a lost season it’s just not going to spark the attention.
The fanbase seems ready to move onto the coaching search and the inherent adrenaline that will come with a new coach.
Still there is football to be played, and the players and coaches for the Spartans sounded focused as they came into this week. In a season where almost nothing has gone according to plan, the ability of this coaching staff to keep the tone engaged around this team has been impressive.
How will Katin Houser look against an opponent closer to this team’s level of skill?
Houser looked much better against an Indiana team that has a very poor defense. Still better does not always mean great. Houser was given short passes and screens to get comfortable early in the game. A rare move by offensive coordinator Jay Johnson that tried to help his QBs. Still Houser struggled. Early on, any pass actually downfield was overthrown. Including a long interception. After that interception Houser locked in a bit more. The passes started hitting receivers within their catch radius (some were simply dropped by receivers at that point) and the offense started moving.
Houser needs receivers to help him - like the Montore Foster catch for a touchdown - not work against him. He’s still not accurate enough nor strong enough to squeeze the ball into tight windows.
In the middle of the third quarter Katin Houser proved he remains the luckiest player on the planet. Throughout the season he has had easily interceptable balls bobbled by defenders. In the third quarter, Houser’s second poor interception of the game ended in an Indiana run back that was then fumbled back to the Spartans. It’s incredible how many times Houser has gotten away with near turnovers this year. When the end of year performances are reviewed, the stat line will not tell the accurate story of Houser’s ball security.
Can the defense show true improvement against a more even skill matchup?
The defense surprisingly struggled. Indiana’s offense showed against Illinois that they can produce (500+ yards in that overtime loss). Still, they are not nearly the challenge many of the offenses the Spartans have played this year.
The Hoosiers basically determined their own outcomes. When Indiana’s QB was on target, they moved the ball up and down the field. When the QB overthrew (or had a wild snap go over his head) the Spartans were able to get some quick stops.
Will we see any improvement in the special teams? Let’s call it a potentially penalty free outing?
Yes. There was clear improvement in this game. The punting unit avoided formation and pre-snap penalties. For this squad that has been so atrocious this year that is clear improvement. On top of that, the punt unit had multiple kicks downed inside Indiana’s 15 yard line. That’s good in any game.
Still this unit found ways to screw things up. The kickoff after MSU’s second touchdown was one shoe string grab away from a run back touchdown. In the middle of the third quarter the punt return unit let up another fake punt conversion for a first down. Credit to Indiana on that but it’s discouraging to see these types of plays consistently made against the Spartans.
If this game against Indiana is an audition for next year, who would you prioritize keeping on the roster?
The defense has some players fans should want to stay. Hall, Dillon Tatum, Malik Spencer are all very talented. Another year stronger and more experienced and they could be something next year.
On offense, Nate Carter could be a late round draft pick or would most likely stick around as he has already transferred. A year with both Carter and Mangum as a one-two punch in the backfield would be interesting to see. Tyrell Henry would also be a receiver that the team should want back.
Maliq Carr looks like he will be coming back as he has already transferred and has had a disappointing season unlikely to lead to being drafted. Another year, with a new set of coaches might be a great outcome for a player with such potential upside.
The eyes of many will be on the QB room. There is a potential that none of the three QBs from this year are back next year. Noah Kim appears to essentially be gone from the team already and either Katin Houser or Sam Leavitt could be lured away by another program. Particularly Leavitt seems like a candidate to be somewhere else next year. On top fo that, even if they do choose to return, a new coach may be tempted to bring in his own QB.
What will MSU fans remember about this season (beyond the terrible stuff)?
The scandal. Nothing beyond that.
This year has been mostly forgettable on the field. No signature wins, no big moments and an overwhelming sense of futility. Give it a few years and the narrative will not be Harlon Barnett, or the QB battle, or the frustration with the coordinators. That noise will fade and what will remain is the embarrassment of the fall of Mel Tucker.
Questions Coming Up During the Game
Where has Maliq Carr been this year?
Injured is the simple answer. The more complex answer is, “no friggin idea” (please excuse the friggin, I am trying to keep this appropriate for all ages). Carr has had a few stretches where he displays a great ability to get open and snag passes in tight spots. It’s not been consistent enough at any point.
Some of that may be coaching. Jay Johnson seemed willing to design plays for Carr early, but after injuries started taking hold not nearly as much.
Some of this may be the QB situation. Noah Kim clearly struggled and Katin Houser did not look well suited to deliver the types of passes with zip that usually benefit tight ends in traffic. ‘
Some of this may simply be talent all around. When Carr was healthy defenses new he was a threat and tended to use traffic around the box to stifle his ability to get open. The offense lacked deep threat options throughout the year, so the box could remain stacked to stop the run and Carr.
In the end this could also be Maliq Carr. Carr looks physically big this year. The size did not look like it actually helped him. Instead of big and strong, he often just looked big. Carr was not ever the speed guy some other players are, he was simply more athletic than most people covering him. Carrying the more size this year seemed to slow him down enough that larger middle line backers could stay with him. Carr has a lot of potential. It still just doesn’t seem to come together.
Would a healthy Maliq Carr and Mangham have made a big difference this year?
Yes. How much is much harder to say. It’s clear Mangham could have been a nice counter punch to Nathan Carter. Carter was easily keyed on this year as the only consistent offense for the Spartans. Still, he was strong enough to have some good power runs. Mangham added a new dimension with his style of running but it was not night and day different. Carter could still have used a reliable backup that gave him some rest.
Carr being there the whole year might have kept the offensive game plan focused on him. That could have helped the QB carousel get comfortable with one of the players with the most potential on the roster.
Still, this roster would have truly benefited from more consistent line play and a more consistent speedy wide receiver. These type of what ifs are fun, but not all that valuable. And in the end this team was flawed in so many ways, it’s unclear how much even a couple more talented players being available could have really changed their fortunes.
What does Montore Foster’s big game mean?
Wide receiver Montore Foster had a great game. The one handed catch in the first half that he then spun around defenders and found his way into the endzone was a big time play. This is the type of performance the Spartans have hoped for all year. At times, Foster has been the go to receiver. At other times he has gone through bouts of dropping the ball. It didn’t seem to matter which QB was throwing the ball, Foster killed multiple drives over the first half of the season with an untimely drop.
This game showed what might have been with a more consistent year from Foster. And in his defense, what might have been if he had a QB that could consistently throw him the ball. The Spartans needed some downfield passing to open up defenses and make room for their run game. Foster has been decent, but like most of the offense this year simply not good enough consistently to make the difference needed.
What was the deal with the injuries in this game?
A disclaimer on this question. I’m bringing it up because I think it should be looked into by someone with more expertise than I possess. Anyone watching this game - including the announcers - had to be struck by the sheer amount of injuries. The late fourth quarter felt like multiple players hit the deck injured after every single play. It was not just Michigan State players.
With the recent focus by the NFLPA on the impact of artificial fields on player safety, it feels like Indiana’s turf should be investigated (please note: this is a nonpartisan statement. I am NOT claiming the injuries hurt MSU, there were too many injuries on both sides).
Should we over react to Katin Houser’s game winning touchdown drive?
No. And yet, yes. It was one drive. So let’s not assume he has arrived. That said, if Houser becomes a much improved quarterback next year this is a drive we should all point at. It was a rare stretch where Houser looked like a guy set on elevating those around him. He made a fourth down conversion happen. He scrambled and ran for a big gain to set up the eventual touchdown. And on that touchdown throw he gave himself time by moving outside of the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield.
It was a great series for the young QB and a small piece of potentially important evidence for a more optimistic future.
Questions for Next Week
- What is Michigan State playing for against Penn State? (or put it another way, what defines a moral victory for them?)
- How many Spartan fans will travel to Ford Field for this game?
- Was having this game at a neutral site a blessing in disguise for this year?
- Can Maliq Carr show more signs of improvement against a strong defense like Penn State?
- Can Katin Houser limit his turnovers (or his near turnovers)?
- How will the Special Teams play? Will it be a quiet semi competent display or another dumpster fire performance?