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10 Questions Answered during Michigan State vs Washington, and 5 Raised

Washington utterly dominated Michigan State. This game was always going to be an important test, and it answered (and raised) important questions. 

Syndication: Lansing State Journal Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Michigan State came into this game against Washington with a lot of questions to answer - and some of them were even on the field. The first two weeks saw Michigan State play two substantially less talented teams with some evident struggles and some signs of dominance. Washington was supposed to be the measuring stick that truly told us what this Spartan squad could do and be.

One question was clearly answered in this game: Michigan State is NOT as good as Washington. Washington dominated in every phase of the game. Michigan State had almost no offense (their only points came on a later garbage time play) and the defense simply could not stop the Huskies.

Still this game answered some questions, raised some new ones, and leaves us with more for next week.

Questions Coming Into the Game:

Usually this piece would build from the questions and answers from last week’s game (in this case Richmond), but the Mel Tucker story that climaxed on Sunday afternoon with his suspension essentially drowned out almost all lingering questions from the game on Saturday and left just one giant question:

How will the Spartans play after the suspension of their head coach, Mel Tucker?

Poorly. Washington overwhelmed Michigan State so thoroughly that it’s hard to tell if this would have been the outcome with Mel Tucker still on the sidelines. It could not have been much worse. It will take another week to see if this loss combined with the Tucker suspension truly derails this team.

That has a wide range of follow up questions, including:

Will Michigan State’s play calling or on field strategy look different under acting head coach Harlon Barnett?

This can be difficult to answer based on the opponents for the first two weeks. Michigan State kept their strategies pretty vanilla against Central Michigan and Richmond. That means the changes rolled out against Washington could have always been the plan, or new wrinkles added through the coaching shakeup. Regardless there were some new strategies definitely deployed.

In a rare moment from this game that should make fans happy, the Spartans finally ran a sensible short yardage play. On a 3rd and 1, Noah Kim actually lined up under center and QB sneaked the ball with the tight end pushing him forward. Beyond that, the play calling mostly looked like what we’ve seen out of MSU recently.

Here are some other questions that were about on-field performance related to this game, that actually came out of the play seen against Richmond:

After two sloppy and slow starts in the first two weeks of the season, can MSU get off to a better looking start against Washington - particularly offensively?

Early indications were Michigan State was going to struggle. They looked more organized than they had their first two games. Unfortunately, they also looked like the offensive line was going to get zero push against Washington and Nathan Carter was bottled up early. Noah Kim looked sharper, even if some of his early throws (like a third down pass to Maliq Carr that was well short of the first down marker) showed signs of looking to play conservative.

At the end of the first quarter I wrote this: All in all, an improvement over the first few weeks - even if the results aren’t there against a truly quality opponent.

By the middle of the second quarter the team started to fall apart. These players are frustrated and looking for someone to blame.

Can the offensive line provide any protection and/or push against their most talented opponent yet?

No. Particularly running the ball, no. To be kind, the offensive line did stand up and give Kim time to throw in the first half at various points. Unfortunately, Kim was off target for much of the first half, and that meant even the positive contributions from the offensive line were largely fruitless.

How much will injuries in the running back room limit Michigan State?

This did not seem to matter. The offensive line provided no early sign they could reliably set up the run. Nathan Carter did some marvelous stuff with the few times he touched the ball and could get past the line of scrimmage, but they were limited touches. Combine the O-line’s limitations with the huge scoring from Washington and you had a recipe that kept MSU from using any running back - let alone their backups.

Are the small signs of progress seen by the young secondary in the first two weeks for real?

Absolutely not. The first half proved that Michigan State’s secondary is a long long way from elite. They have a long way to prove they are competent. Against a Washington offense that absolutely loves the big play, Michigan State looked unable to stop anything. Michael Penix, jr. picked apart the linebackers early on when MSU’s game plan appeared to be a deep shell. After the secondary had to start crawling up a bit to challenge receivers it got even worse. Washington’s receivers were more athletic - consistently winning jump balls - and even when Penix was off target, his receivers had the time and freedom to adjust and grab the ball. The only good news is MSU may not play as powerful a big play pass offense again all year. That’s for the better, and provides the only glimmer of hope that maybe this secondary can avoid being embarrassed like this again.

Questions Coming Up During the Game

Who is to blame for the flood of injuries and small mistakes in the 2nd quarter?

Everyone? The players are the ones making the mistake, so there is always something odd about blaming coaches. That said, some of these penalties - like the illegal formation that negated a third down conversion - seemed like the coaches didn’t have the players fully prepared.

The slew of personal fouls late in the 2nd quarter seemed to come as both teams started getting chippy. The Spartan players looked visibly frustrated as they fell behind 21 to - then 28 to 0. In response, some of the Huskies were also looking frustrated and partaking in some pushing and shoving.

The penalties across the board were out of control. The two teams combined for 18 penalties in the first half. Before the last drive by the Spartans in the first half, the Huskies had been penalized for more yards (90) than MSU had earned (81). That’s sad for both teams.

This was never going to be an easy game for MSU, and losing like this is frustrating. Add that to the week these players have had, and a little bit of everyone is to blame for the sloppiness.

Is Noah Kim to blame for the first half hole?

Noah Kim had his worst game yet. Unlike the first two games where he started sloppy and settled in, Kim looked simply inconsistent from beginning to end. Kim showed some moments where the pinpoint accuracy and zip seemed tantalizingly close to fueling a drive - but then a penalty, or a poor decision would lead to a set of off target (mostly high) throws.

Kim wasn’t even that harried for much of the first half, he was simply off target too often. Kim isn’t responsible for the defense allowing Washington to score at will, but he was a core reason MSU drives seemed to stall all too quickly and give the ball back to the touchdown-happy Huskies.

Does one long pass by backup Katin Houser make a QB controversy?

Should it? No. Will it? Probably - at least on Twitter (I mean X…ugh, I still hate that). Noah Kim had a truly horrendous game. Worse, Washington’s defense didn’t seem to be the reason. Kim was off target consistently, even without consistent pressure. This is what happens with an inexperienced QB.

Kim has still shown some incredible accuracy and enough zip in his throws to make him an intriguing leader. While it was against Richmond, Kim’s 15 straight completions was a program record.

Houser had an impressive 61 yard pass that will stick as one of the few truly nice looking plays of the year. And a decent looking quarterback keeper gave the team the only points of the game. He still finished 2 for 4, playing against Washington’s 3rd and 4th string. Garbage time excellence can be fools gold. We will have to trust the coaches to know what is real between Kim and Houser.

What Is the outlook for this team after three games?

The short version is: uncertain. The first two games provided some concerns and some promising signs. The quality of the opponents were so low that it felt like the answers gleaned from the games couldn’t be relied on.

This game is the exact opposite. If Washington continues to prove they are really this good, this game may need to be written off as simply MSU not ready for the upper tier of college football this year. That fits with expectations that the Spartans would struggle with Ohio State, Michigan (ugh), and Penn State.

Maryland is now absolutely crucial. MSU must show they can play with the next tier down in the Big Ten. Beyond that, they will need to make a positive impression on themselves with many players having to reckon with the week 5 decision to take a redshirt year or play the year of eligibility out.

Questions for Next Week

  • Can Michigan State regroup and start strong against Maryland?
  • Can Michigan State’s secondary stop anyone? Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa is not exactly a bad QB.
  • Is this what Noah Kim is? A player who can settle in against lesser opponents, but be cripplingly inconsistent against good defenses? Or will there by an adjustment next week?
  • Will we see Kaitin Houser get snaps before garbage time?
  • Can Michigan State clean up the penalties?

What are your questions for next week?