The Michigan State Spartans lost to Penn State and their football season is fully and mercifully over.
Not all losses are created equal. There are losses that leave you heartbroken. There are losses that leave you hopeful due to a glimpse of a better future. Then there are losses that leave you in despair. This loss was so bad it almost felt like it created a new situation: utter lack of interest in this team or their future.
A new coach will inherently change that. It may even do it fast as an announcement is expected at least by Sunday. Still, the legacy of this lost will be an undercurrent for fans and the program. This will long be referenced as what it looks like when a team fully collapses.
Details of the Curve for this Game: Penn State is not elite, as losses to Ohio State and Michigan show. That does not change the reality that they are very good. This means the Spartans are hoping to hang with them and make the game tough on the Nittany Lions. That was the bar for success coming into this game. (It was a shame that heavy curve on grades couldn’t help the performance much except in one facet).
Katin Houser started the game looking like the best version of himself. Two long completions helped move the offense in chunks down the field. The second was the best throw he’s had all year. Unfortunately, the drive ended with the worst elements of Houser where he stared down his target on a third down and threw off target and weakly straight into a Penn State safety’s hands. Houser has avoided multiple interceptions this year by pure luck, this game that luck wasn’t with him.
The second offensive series of the game saw a different problem re-emerge: Offensive Coordinator Jay Johnson. The play call on 3rd and 2 was simply badly designed. To be generous it might have been a run-pass option that Houser decided to go for a pass, but even that looked bad. The sprint blocking to the right developed like a screen pass, but asked the QB to turn fully toward the unblocked side of the line and wait for his receivers to get more than 8 yards down field. Notably, there were also two receivers within 5 yards of each other. The play got blown up because it was so poorly designed and the Spartans was forced to punt.
Finally on the last offensive possession of the first half the Spartans showed a bit more life again. A big Maliq Carr catch and rumble got the Spartans down to the Penn State 25 yard line. From there they went backwards. A Jay Johnson trick play got blown up as Alante Brown got flagged for intentional grounding. The next two play calls were less trickery but no more successful. The damage resulted in pushing MSU out of field goal range.
The second half saw the Spartans pick up where they left off - going backwards. After a nearly botched fair catch on the kick off, the Spartans went from starting on the 25 yard line to punting inside their own ten. It again put the defense defending a short field.
By the start of the fourth quarter offensive possessions became less about how many yards they could gain and more about can they keep Katin Houser alive. After that, it became about how quickly they could get everyone to clean out their lockers.
Offense Grade: F
The first series of the game saw the defense do a “bend but don’t break” type of approach. The theory seemed to be to keep the front four rushing the QB but leave everyone else in coverage. This initially allowed Penn Sate’s QB Allar to pick them apart. On a key third down conversion Allar progressed through four reads in a completely clean pocket.
The decision setup a hard switch on the final third down of the drive that saw a brilliantly disguised middle linebacker blitz sack the QB and force a field goal.
The same approach seemed to take place on the second defensive series. After letting up a monster run, the defense dug in and forced a field goal - that was missed.
Three possessions in a row the formula was the same. Scottie Hazelton’s defense let up big play after big play and yet found a way to hold Penn State out of the endzone. This is notable since Penn State has the highest red zone touchdown rate of any Big Ten team.
On the fourth possession the dam finally broke. Penn State used another round of big runs to get down to the 1-yard line. Despite a valiant goal line stand, Michigan State allowed the touchdown on third down. From there the defense mostly crumbled.
The defense was asked to carry the entire weight of this game and never got a rest because of how ineffectual the offense was at sustaining drives (or, to be honest, gaining any yards).
The defensive grade is going to ignore the collapse in the fourth quarter. The unit was asked to carry this team and for the first half they did. After your offense just quits, and special teams starts giving up big returns you can’t ask the defense to keep going it alone. The grade is a B that ignores everything that happened after the middle of the third quarter. Call it the curve, call it being kind, but the defense held Penn State to three field goal attempts and one touchdown in the first half. That deserves praise.
Defense Grade: B
The opening punt was a boomer. The punter out kicked the coverage but left enough hang time to give the coverage team a chance to catch up. In general the punts were great in the first half.
The single blemish for the half on special teams was a false start on a punt. It worked out as it gave the punter a bit more room to work with as his kick pinned Penn State back within their own five yard line.
The start to the second half was not pretty. Alante Brown and Tyrell Henry both called for a fair catch on the kickoff and both caught it. It didn’t technically cost the Spartans anything. It did hurt any pride that unit might be trying to recover.
The sign the full on emotional collapse was on for the Spartans came at the start of the fourth quarter. A decent punt (out of the Spartan endzone because the offense had once again gone backwards) was sent passed mid field and then returned more than 30 yards. A touchdown saving tackle didn’t cover up the fact that the coverage unit looked completely unfocused.
The punting is what keeps this grade in the realm of respectable. The entire team collapsed, that means any positive needs to be recognized.
Special Teams Grade: B
The first half didn’t give the coaches many opportunities to really make in-game adjustments. Scottie Hazelton clearly was willing to let Penn State get chunk plays and then launch all out blitzes to keep them out of the endzone. It was a risky gamble that paid off early even if it was ugly to watch.
Jay Johnson’s offense looked largely ineffectual except for the first drive and one great play by Maliq Carr. Johnson’s tendency to reach for the trick play and love of side to side passes, rather than vertical passes bit him hard late in the first half as the offense lost a field goal opportunity by going backwards for three straight plays.
The one truly painful moment in the first half was watching head coach Barnett be indecisive at the very end of the half. MSU cost themselves 7-seconds at least because he didn’t seem to realize he should call timeout (MSU had all three) after stopping Penn State on third down.
The second half saw the entire team fall apart. This task may have been too much for any coaching staff. Still the result was embarrassment. This team quit. The coaches bear some serious responsibility for that.
Coaching Grade: F
The Spartans came into this game playing for pride. The defense tried to embody that as they held Penn State to 13 points in the first half. The offense tried to do that before a Katin Houser interception ended the first drive - and any positive activity by the offense for the game. The first half looked like a team still fighting. The second half was a collapse.
The offense had negative 26 yards in the second half before they went to the fourth string QB. The defense gave up big play after big play to an offense that has lacked them all season. The special teams allowed Penn State a few big returns. Nothing worked for the Spartans. The players looked like they wanted to leave the building. Perhaps it was good the game was at Ford Field, if they’d been on campus the players may have had somewhere to go.
Instead they had to wait for the bus and play out the game. For the few fans that were still watching, it just got uglier and uglier.
Overall Grade: F