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Michigan State Beats Nebraska: Post Game Grades for The Spartans

The win is huge for the struggling Spartans but it doesn’t solve all the problems.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Michigan State Dale Young-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State Football won a game! Seriously! A real life football game against a Big Ten opponent!

Michigan State held on to win an ugly 20-17 game against Nebraska. The game had a lot of warts and worries but it still ended with the Spartan players celebrating Harlon Barnett’s first win. And it was on the team’s unexpectedly early senior night to boot! This is cause for celebration!

So enjoy the celebrating then dive into the grades below. The Spartans may have won, but the team was still wanting in some key areas.

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: Nebraska is better than most expect this year. Their defense has kept them in games. Their offense is big play or bust. Their QB is a running powerhouse who has two passing modes: giant play down field or absolutely terrible interception straight to the opponent. The expectation is Nebraska will turn the ball over. That helping hand means the Spartan defense will most likely overperform against the curve. The rest of the units are much more evenly matched up - except maybe in coaching.

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

The opening offensive sequence was a surprise. Katin Houser came out the starting QB (after a week of speculation the Sam Leavitt might start) and promptly drove about 70 yards down the field. Two big pass plays chunked the Spartans from their own 11-yard line to the red zone. Then the recent MSU offense re-appeared as a receiver dropped a pass (thrown slightly behind him) and Houser just barely avoided a pick-six. The field goal felt like a let down after the two big pass plays.

After Houser struggled on the second possession they switched to Leavitt for a possession that also ended in a three and out.

Houser returned and was the immediate beneficiary of a trick play that saw Alante Brown takes backwards pass and then fire a 42-yard shot to a receiver. The play setup Michigan State’s first touchdown, a throw by Houser. The positives the trick play worked and was not a flea flicker. The negative was after the big trick play the offense took a delay of game penalty.

The start of the second half showed a promising spark. The offense, and particularly QB Katin Houser put together a few flashy looking plays. Two pass plays to Tyrell Henry got the offense moving in a way we have not seen in a long while. Henry looks fast and dangerous with the ball in his hands. The drive had some solid conversions but still stalled near mid field leading to Jonathan Kim’s second field goal. The play of Houser on the drive, plus the sign that maybe Henry has more to give were positives.

The problem is the next possession MSU started at mid field then proceeded to go sack, run for no yards, sack and punt the ball on 4th and 21. Not the inspiring movement you want.

At the start of the 4th quarter Sam Leavitt came back in and the offense struck quickly. A set of gadget plays and using Leavitt as a runner setup a long throw to Montore Foster for his second touchdown of the day. That sequence showed a rebirth fo offensive creativity and some play making from Leavitt.

Leavitt was rewarded with Houser’s return for the rest of the game and completely stalling out. Beyond the QB confusion, the play calling late in the game was a coaching crime. Throwing in the 4th quarter with the lead rather than burning clock is simply bad strategy. Compounding that again by calling a running back throw (that luckily Alante Brown decided not to throw and take an effective sack) adds insult to injury. For all the positives the new trick plays brought to the game, Jay Johnson’s play calling showed a complete lack of in-game situational awareness.

The offense was schizophrenic in this game. It was terrible at times and yet it generated 20-points and two legit touchdown drives. Those are outcomes that feel like massive improvements for this unit. The in game grade is a B and the curve is the same as the Huskers defense played pretty well but is not dominant. If MSU had not lowered the bar for success so much in the last few weeks, this grade might have been a bit harsher. The team won, so it stays at this level.

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

The defense started the game strong. The first possession forced a three and out and the second ended in an interception. The interception is obviously great, the problem though was the outcome was basically a gift from Nebraska as the QB had two receivers wide open for touchdowns and simply threw it to the one area that had a Spartan defender and no Cornhusker receivers.

On the next possession the defense let Nebraska run all over them for a touchdown. Nebraska has one of the worst red zone offenses this year, and yet they looked great against the Spartans.

The defense showed both its Achilles heel and its grit on the final drive of the first half. The 12-play 70+ yard drive by Nebraska only resulted in a field goal. It might have ended in less (even potentially another interception) if the defense (and the sideline) didn’t commit multiple penalties.

The defense in the second half shut down Nebraska. It helped that Nebraska’s QB threw wild again for an easy interception. Beyond that though, MSU forced punts or turnovers for almost the entirety of the second half.

Unfortunately with the game on the line the defense flinched hard. Nebraska got the ball down 10 with just over 4 minutes left. Then drove down the field in essentially 4 plays. The worst of that was watching Nebraska’s QB run 43 yards right through the heart of the defense. Prior to that, MSU’s defense had done a great job containing the Huskers QB.

In the end, the defense delivered. Clinging to a 20-17 lead and Nebraska taking possession with two and half minutes left, MSU’s defense stepped up and closed the game. They broke up a pass, stuffed a run (inexplicable play call) and had a strip sack that resulted in a fumble recovery.

The defense was even able to deliver one last time after the offense could not get a first down in the final two minutes.

For the final grade, the defense gets an A-. The defense mostly played a great game with only a few errors - and that one big drive they collapsed on late. The curve is a bit harsher because Nebraska’s offense is simply not good. Their QB is incredibly inaccurate. The interceptions are both a credit to MSU’s secondary as well as a sign that the Huskers QB is not very good yet at passing the ball. More times than is comfortable, MSU’s defense relied on Nebraska making a mistake rather than stopping them.

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

The special teams grade needs to be divided. On one side is place kicker Jonathan Kim. On the other is everything else. Jonathan Kim connected on 2 field goals, including a strong 51-yard field goal early in the 2nd half that gave MSU the lead. Yes, he missed a late field goal that could have been important but considering how much the rest of this unit is struggling, Kim is still the standout.

Beyond Kim, the special teams struggled mightily.

The special teams started the game with a minor thud. Cleanly fielding the kickoff 1-yard into the endzone, the Spartans decided to run the ball out straight into a wall of Nebraska coverage, leaving the offense to start on their own 11-yard line.

The next notable action by the unit was on yet another penalty on a punt. The best thing that can be said is the false start wasn’t a formation penalty. Still it’s incredible the number of penalties this unit has on a stock standard play (a punt).

The second half opened with a stop by the defense and an exciting drive by the offense. When the drive stalled and ended up in a long field goal attempt the team could not even line up correctly. It cost MSU a timeout before Jonathan Kim connected. Not having a full complement of players on the field for a field goal is simply inexcusable at this time in the year.

A rare strong play by the special teams came around the 12 minute mark in the 4th quarter. The punt return team got actual pressure on the kicker and it led to a shorter punt and MSU getting the ball on offense near their own 40 yard line.

To be fair, the punters combined for a pretty good day as well. There were multiple punts that pinned Nebraska deep in their own territory.

This phase of the game still is a struggle and it definitely feels like a coaching problem.

The grade is a C+ with the curve being the same. Nebraska did nothing on special teams to really capitalize on MSU’s weakness so the curve ends up the same as the objective score.

Coaching: B+ (Game Specific Grade) / C+ (On a curve based on competition)

This team is simply not organized well. In the first half the offense took a delay of game after gaining 46-yards. Yes, the players need to focus, but where is the coaching to get in the call and ready to go?

Early in the second half, the field goal unit failed to get 11 players on the field. That’s embarrassing. These are continued signs that the coaching staff can’t even keep their players organized in the most basic of areas.

A sideline penalty late in the first half by an assistant coach helped Nebraska turn a 15-yard QB scramble into a 30-yard gain (after the penalty was added) into Michigan State territory. This coaching staff has enough problems without finding ways to give the opposition yards by being obnoxious.

Going for it on 4th and 1 at mid field early in the third quarter was a good, by the numbers call. Going for it by calling a run option for QB Katin Houser was a rare solid play call by Jay Johnson.

Speaking of Johnson, his play calling was inconsistent and at times seemed to ignore Nathan Carter to overly focus on giving the rotating QBs opportunities. Still, it did feature a few good moments. His preference for trick plays resurfaced - thankfully with new wrinkles (i.e. it was not all flea flickers). Early in the second half there were a few plays designed to get Tyrell Henry the ball. That is something this team needs to do more.

Still, Johnson should be investigated for malpractice for his handling of the offense late in the 4th quarter. There seemed to be no effort to burn the clock, and they even tried a trick play near the very end when time management and ball security were the priorities. Those home run type play calls were completely unnecessary and gave the ball back to Nebraska twice in the final four and a half minutes with a chance to tie or win the game. That’s irresponsible and simply awful play calling.

Johnson’s counterpart on defense, Scottie Hazleton deserves some praise. His defense is getting results. This is a young defense with guys missing at key spots (injuries mostly, though some transferring). Hazleton has done a great job relying mostly on young guys still learning.

During the game, Harlon Barnett looked notably more involved than any game before. It could be coincidence of what is captured on the broadcast but Barnett had notably looked passive in many of his games. Against Nebraska he was pumping people up, talking to players and at least emotionally involved in what was going on.

The decision many will focus on was not going for it on 4th-and-1 with four and a half minutes left in the 4th quarter up 10. The decision to punt made sense with the way the defense was playing. It looked bad in hindsight after Nebraska scored a touchdown and closed the gap to 17-20, but it was still the right call.

The incorrect call was MSU using pass plays in the 4th quarter when the offense needed to run the ball to burn clock. The lack of interest in using Nathan Carter to run down the clock is unfathomable. Putting Alante Brown on the field for what appeared to be another running back throw that he pulled down and ran instead is as confounding as any play call this season.

The final grade is a generous B+ for the staff. They won. That is what matters in the end. Barnett gets his first win as a head coach and the entire team gets the relief they deserve. This grade is a lot lower on the curve as MSU clearly benefited on defense from Nebraska’s QB problems, and MSU seemed to go out of its way to lower its chances of winning.

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

This is a bit harsh considering MSU won. The emotional response is to give this team a higher grade simply for the outcome. The problem is the way MSU won became reliant on Nebraska simply being worse, not the Spartans being better.

The coaching decisions around rotating Houser and Leavitt at the QB spot need to be looked into further (stay tuned for that article). The game management and execution down the stretch was precarious at best, terrible at worst. MSU seemed to be inventing ways to lose the game in the final four and a half minutes.

Still, the team came together and won. The defense got the stops it needed, the special teams while bad were not disastrous, and the offense showed intermittent signs of life. Struggling programs need to start somewhere. An ugly win against a team that has been better than most expected is a good place to start.

How do you grade Michigan State for this game?