Michigan State pulled out a win against a Big Ten opponent for the first time this year. Beating Nebraska 20-17 was a watershed moment for this team and the coaching staff. Harlon Barnett got his first win as a head coach and the players were able to close out the last (true) home game of the year on a positive note.
The game had a positive outcome and still created a lot of questions. Let’s dive in.
Questions Coming Into the Game:
Will Sam Leavitt start against Nebraska?
He did not. Katin Houser came out the starting quarterback after Harlon Barnett stated it was a competition this week. The early evidence made Houser look like a smart choice. Back to back throws for big gains - the second for 46-yards got MSU into the red zone fast from a start on their own 11-yard line. Still the offense stalled after a receiver dropped a pass (ugh) and Houser threw yet another pass that should have been picked off. He dominates in that stat. His luck in not having more interceptions is remarkable.
After Houser could not move the team at all on the second possession Sam Leavitt took the third offensive possession. He took a bad sack and underthrew a deep ball that was in jeopardy for an interception. The three and out did not exactly prove that Leavitt should have started.
After that, Katin Houser took the snaps for the rest of the 2nd and 3rd quarters including a first half touchdown. Then Sam Leavitt entered the game at the start of the 4th quarter. He threw a great touchdown ball and… was replaced by Houser on the remaining possessions of the game. The logic behind the moves did not seem obvious.
Can Nate Carter find a way to return to his form creating yards out of nothing?
Carter is starting to feel like the forgotten man on this offense. It’s clear that defenses are treating MSU like a run first team. They seem to know he is the one consistent offensive weapon and it has definitely contributed to Cater’s diminishing production of late. Still, his production appears to be going down because the offense is simply not calling plays for him as much. Carter ran hard, even if the results weren’t always there. The play calling does not seem interested in finding creative ways to get him in space to make plays.
Not using Carter late in the fourth quarter was play calling malfeasance.
Can the defense regain a semblance of their early season form?
Yes. The defense played substantially better this week than the last couple. Even with a shaky showing late in the 4th quarter that led Nebraska close to within a field goal, the defense deserves serious praise for its work in this game. The young guys are starting to show up for the Spartans. In an era before the transfer portal this would be a great building block game for a future year’s defense. For now, we have to settle for being excited these guys are improving and hope enough of them stay in the offseason for it to help future years at all.
Can the special teams continue its decent play?
No. Dear god, no. Beyond place kicker Jonathan Kim this unit was essentially terrible again. They did not have the big boneheaded cost the game time plays like in the Rutgers game, but they had problems in some really basic areas. Burning a timeout early in the 2nd half because they failed to get all 11 players on the field for a field goal attempt was simply embarrassing.
Can the team find any compelling reason fans should believe in them this season?
They won! This felt unexpected despite these teams being fairly well matched. MSU won and that puts them in line for a potential 2-2 record to close the season (this assumes a loss to Ohio State and Penn State and a win against Indiana). It may not be the ending fans wanted, but a 2-2 closing stretch sounds a lot better than a winless conference season.
In addition, the young guys are starting to play well. Tyrell Henry had his best overall game on offense and special teams. The young defensive backs played very well. And in moments both young QBs showed why they might be effective down the road. These are all things to believe in, even if it can’t change the trajectory of this season much, it can change how the last few weeks of it feel.
Can we stop talking about football and only talk about basketball? (how about Volleyball?)
Michigan State won. They may have ugly games against Ohio State and Penn State left but they have a winnable game against Indiana in there as well. Basketball starts Monday so we will definitely be talking about that, but it’s too early to stop the presses on this football team. And that feels great.
Questions Coming Up During the Game
Is Katin Houser really moving this offense?
It was a surprise to some that Houser started this game. His opening drive showcased two big pass plays that are an important reminder that Houser has game. The concerns were still evident early. That first drive ended after two incompletions, one thrown behind a receiver the other almost a pick-six. On the second possession Houser was unable to move the offense a yard.
Late in the first half, Houser did lead a touchdown drive that showed some signs of life. The connections to Tyrell Henry also have a kernel of excitement to them.
Outside of that though Houser still struggled. He did not turn the ball over - the difference in this win - but he also failed to move the offense in crucial moments.
Is Michigan State deprioritizing the run to check out the QBs?
Throughout the first half the offensive series seemed to go the same way. Nathan Carter would pick up some early yards then the play calling switched to passing. Then the passing either ended up in the endzone or giving up the ball.
Carter disappeared last week but in this game was grinding out some yards. Instead of riding him and hiding the under performing QBs, the play calling seemed to want to highlight the QBs. If the goal is to see if Houser (or the one series for Leavitt in the first half) has what it takes for the future fine, but the coaches should be clearer about that. Because from the outside of the program, it sure looks like they are not using their only reliable offensive weapon enough.
Why bring in Sam Leavitt for two series?
Beyond celebrating the win, the handling of Leavitt has to be the biggest question to come out of this game. Why put Leavitt in for two series in this game. It used up his last redshirt game (i.e. if he plays again this year he burns the redshirt option) and it gave only a minimal look at his skills. Further, it didn’t seem like playing him or not was based on his performance. The quick hook in the first half looked like it was performance related. In the second half he came in and led a touchdown drive and still got the hook. It looked like the plan was to give him one series a half. That seems more disruptive than helpful.
Did Tyrell Henry turn a corner this week?
The speedy young player showed more reliable hands than almost any receiver has in weeks. Further he showed off the speed that could make him a potential game breaker down the road. This looked like a light switch game where things start to come together. It also looked like a game where the offensive play calling realized maybe he was useful. So… let’s be kind and say it was a turning point for the player (and not over focus on why it took so long to feature him in a few plays).
Questions for Next Week
- Who should start for MSU next week at QB?
- Will Sam Leavitt burn his redshirt? (and should he?)
- Can the defense keep up with Ohio State’s offense?
- Can Michigan State’s special teams unit avoid another utterly embarrassing mistake?
- How many trick plays will Jay Johnson try to shoehorn into the game plan?
- How much does a Big Ten win change the fan sentiment about this team?