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Michigan State Loses Big to Maryland in Game with SOME Positives: Post Game Grades for The Spartans

In a crucial test the offense struggled, the defense may have found something and the special teams and coaching raise questions.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The score read 31 to 9 as the clock expired and Michigan State’s third string quarterback scrambled for a meaningless first down. Maryland won this game in every phase. Yet, the game had positives for the Spartans. Unlike the truly devastating loss to Washington a week ago, Michigan State looked like they might have a few positives to finally start building this season.

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: Maryland should be a curve defining opponent for Michigan State this year. Maryland is as close to a proxy program the Spartans will face for much of the year. The Terrapins have an above average offense that has decent balance between run and pass (though they are much better by pass) and a defense that will lose them some games. Their individual talent level is not that much better than Michigan State (though clearly MSU does not have a Tagovailoa on its roster). Both teams will struggle against top tier Big Ten opponents this year. For this reason, differences in the curve will be more situational (like injuries on defense) than normal, and the objective grades may match the cure more directly.

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

First up, why the grades: the C is because this offense failed to convert and score when they should have. The offense could have been given an F because they functionally lost this game for the team. The B- on the curve is because there were some serious positives. MSU outgained Maryland throughout the game. After such an anemic and dysfunctional performance against Washington that was a breath of fresh air. Still, this offense was the reason the team lost the game. Here’s why:

This offense turned the ball over three times. While Noah Kim started a bit shaky, his first half was overall very good. The early interception was ugly, but could be understood as the play calling was not helpful, and the offensive line was leaking. The second drive had MSU looking like a whole different team. Despite that drive being stopped on 4th down on the one yard line, it showed some real positives.

The problem is that momentum was killed by Nathan Carter’s fumble - a rare mistake for the offense’s most consistent (only?) weapon.

Kim even closed the half on a safe tear. By the end of the half, the QB finished 14 of 23. If his receivers didn’t drop balls constantly, he would have finished 17 for 23 and had a touchdown. If MSU could have punched in the second drive and a receiver didn’t drop the ball in the endzone at the end of the half, this game looks totally different. But wishing doesn’t make it show.

In the second half, Kim started pushing the ball more. This resulted in an immediate interception that once again setup Maryland with a short field. Despite the defense finding ways to stop Maryland repeatedly, the offense sputtered. Kim barely avoided a third interception and fumbled (it was recovered) on a third down play that ended his day.

A QB change gave us more of the same. A terrible call for a flea flicker (please stop); inconsistent throws by Houser; and terribly thrown interception ended the red shirt freshman’s day. Eventually, Sam Leavitt came in for less than 90 seconds of garbage time.

The moment that defined this game came at 7-minutes left in the 4th quarter. The game was feeling over even before they put in Houser for his exciting drive and disappointing interception.

With the score 24-9, MSU’s offense had done some impressive things. They ran more offensive plays (72 to 57) and outgained the vaunted Maryland offense by 70 yards on the same average p. play. The problem was the turnovers and the short fields given over and over and over again to Maryland. This offense proved it can gain yards and it is still the reason this game was lost.

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

First the justification for the curve. Maryland is not so good that an objective B- makes this an B+. They are good on offense, but clearly not THAT good. Here are the two factors that increased the curved grade:

The Injuries: MSU was down five starters/key players on defense. All were juniors or seniors. Almost no defense in the country recovers from that.

The Offense (and Special Teams) Lost this Game: The defense was constantly defending short fields. In the first two quarters they gave up two drives less than 45 yards each. Maryland looked unstoppable early - and the defensive secondary CLEARLY struggled, but the other two phases of the game kept making the defense go back to work.

Worse, even when the defense seemed to find something in blitzing its defensive backs, the offense and special teams got worse.

The defense still has issues: All the positives found in this game still reveal some serious problems for the secondary and defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton.

The defensive backs’ cushions are still HUGE on the defensive secondary. On the 2nd first down conversion by Maryland, the defense was more than 5 yards off every single receiver - worse they were settled BEHIND the first down. That’s bad coaching.

The eventual touch down was a team failure as four Spartans stood pointing at each other because no one guarded the flat on the goal line.

Michigan State got minimal pass rush during this game from its defensive front. Tagovailoa is a running risk, leaving it harder to get pure pass rush, still MSU failed to get any disruptive pressure from its front for the second week in a row.

When the Spartans finally started to show something on defense it was driven by pass rush from the secondary. Blitzing corners and safeties made Tagovailoa surprisingly uncomfortable for much of two quarters.

From the end of the first half the defensive storyline changed substantially. MSU stopped Maryland on its last drive of the first half. On the first drive of the second half, the defense stopped Maryland twice (the first stop negated by a fake punt conversion). Then after the offense gave Maryland the ball back immediately - and the short field, the defense made Maryland work for it before catching an interception in the endzone. Thanks to a missed field goal this meant three drives for Maryland without points. The defense was trying to keep MSU in the game at this point.

The problem was the offense was sputtering and the special teams even coughed up a turnover (the 4th of the game) to put the defense back on the field. Defenses should never be applauded for surrendering 31 points but when everyone else is making it this hard, we can at least give a grade based on compassion.

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

Outside of a 46-yard field goal by Jonathan Kim this was a complete and utter failure on special teams. From the start of the game it felt like something was wrong.

On the opening kick off, MSU’s kick returner decided to fair catch at the 15 yard line. This is mind boggling, the kick was easily received and the runner had protection in front of him. While the ball did get advanced by rule to the 25, this reeked of fear of a fumble rather than aggression.

From there, most of the special teams were simply unwatchable. After raising hopes with a 46-yard field goal, MSU closed the first half with a field goal that was blocked.

In the second half’s opening drive, Maryland showed it had no respect whatsoever for Michigan State’s special teams and easily converted a fake punt - negating MSU starting to take a stand on defense.

In the third quarter, after MSU scored its first touchdown and the defense forced a three and out, it looked like there could be some momentum. In came the punt team to kill the moment. The kick was shanked and the ball barely advanced passed the first down marker. Once again giving Maryland’s offense a short field to drive the ball and score.

After that score, Tyrell Henry showed off his speed on a kick return in the 4th quarter. Unfortunately, a holding call negated even that moment of positivity. Even when this unit let its leaders show off, they found ways to hurt themselves.

In a final flail of failure, the kick returner after Maryland’s last touchdown fumbled the ball. This was terrible execution and poor coaching.

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

The grade here is almost impossible to give. On the positive side, Harlon Barnett’s aggressive manner and better game management was refreshing. It showed real growth and impact for the acting head coach. Thats laudable considering the broader situation.

On the negative, the special teams unit was an utter mess, the team still struggled to look prepared from the start, and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson needs to find another job (I’m not done on this topic, but saving it for another piece).

In the mixed bag area was defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton. Hazelton’s defensive scheme is still suspect. The defensive backs give way too much cushion; it’s unclear what he wants to do with the linebackers; and the defensive line failed to get much pass rush on their own. In one truly egregious coaching blunder, the defense tried to substitute multiple players on a goal line stand in between two goal line plays. Predictably, it led to a penalty that was negated by Maryland scoring anyway. That decision by the coaching staff was almost enough for me to fail them outright.

All of that said, Hazelton showed rare willingness (and ability) to adapt.

Hazelton aggressively switched tactics and sent his struggling defensive backs into the backfield. This changed the game. Further, he did that with five key defensive players out.

In the outcome of the game the offense (and special teams) problems were why this team lost. A lot of that was the coaching, and a lot was the players.

Overall this staff got a generous B- for this game. Against a Maryland team that many are critical of their coaching staff, arguably this was only a C+. Maryland failed to exploit Michigan State’s defensive injuries, and rarely found ways to maximize errors by the Spartans. By comparison the positives from Barnett and Hazelton started to look good.

Taking into account the larger situations Barnett and other are still facing helps the curve stay at C+.

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

This game was winnable. Even after Maryland got out to a 21-0 lead, MSU could have come back. From coaching to execution Michigan State just couldn’t pull it together. The B- may be simply because this game looked more competent than the dumpster fire against Washington.

That said, Maryland is the most average opponent they will face this year, and so playing almost to their level for parts of the game gives them a solid C on the curve.

How do you grade Michigan State for this game?