Michigan State fought, fumbled and did some seriously dumb things in a 31-9 loss to Maryland. Maryland is currently a decent peer program for the Spartans. Neither team is challenging the top of the Big Ten and both can make a case not to be in the basement. This meant a lot of questions should be answered in this game.
Questions Coming Into the Game:
Can Michigan State regroup and start strong against Maryland?
Short answer, no. A weird decision to fair catch the opening kick off at the 15 yard line gave some indication this team has zero confidence (something at least on Special Teams that may have been appropriate - more on that later). On offense, Michigan State smartly went run heavy and converted a first down - on a QB sneak no less! Despite this rare return to sanity for the play-calling, the problems on offense showed up almost immediately.
A complex play-action that required Kim to roll out and do a 360 before an incompletion showed the play calling still doesn’t match the needs of a young QB getting adjusted. Making that worse, after Kim left the pocket and completed a nice scramble pass for a first down, MSU once again went “tempo” and forced Kim to run to the line and start the next play. The interception that followed felt predictable.
On defense, MSU basically rolled over like they did at Washington. Early on Washington marched down the field taking underneath throws against soft coverage. With the exception of true Freshman Chance Rucker, MSU’s secondary played soft coverage and got picked apart. The defensive line allowed the running back to power over them as needed, and the inevitable touch down on a goal line play action left four Spartans pointing at each other as they failed to cover the flat.
MSU started afraid, called plays that didn’t let Noah Kim settle in, and played the same defense that let up 700+ yards against Washington. In short, not a good start. (NOTE: It got a LOT better on defense later, but the question was how would they start.)
Will we see a clear impact of Harlon Barnett on this team?
Yes. The Barnett element showed up clearly in how aggressive this team was on offense. Multiple times Barnett went for it on 4th down and chose to believe in his players. Barnett showing this faith in his players may be key to keeping players engaged this season.
Can Michigan State’s secondary stop anyone? Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa is not exactly a bad QB.
No. Even if Michigan State had a decent secondary (note: they do not), being down two key players would be a challenge against a well-above average QB. That said, Tagovailoa is good, but does not seem as good as Washington’s Penix. And Michigan State looked almost completely incapable of stopping him early on.
Maryland relies on its run game more than Washington which means MSU had to keep guys in the box. That left four pass defenders on their own. Consistently they gave too much cushion, closed late on passes, and simply looked overmatched.
For straight pass coverage, it seems like MSU does not have a coaching approach that helps them. From the techniques on display, to the coverage packages, something is wrong.
For example, on the second Maryland touchdown of the game the safety stayed five yards off the crossing receiver in the endzone before bothering to begin to close - about five steps too late. The cornerback had underneath responsibility and the safety failed to provide support over the top, allowing for a (admittedly great) pass that was easily caught for a touchdown. That was the second touchdown in a row that had poor coverage design/understanding by the players in the endzone.
The Spartans found something at the end of the first half that kept them in this game in the second half: pressure. The pressure came from the secondary. MSU must learn from that. They seem incapable of playing consistent pass defense and/or getting pressure from their down lineman. It may be time to start selling out more often and sending a corner or safety blitzing on almost every play moving forward.
Michigan State revealed a ton of injuries prior to this game. For an already suspect defense, can anyone step up to replace them?
Those out for this game on defense:
Chris Brantley, CB - the team’s best cornerback. It was huge news for them when he pulled himself out of the transfer portal. While the younger CBs have looked potentially more exciting, Brantley is the voice of experience on this defense.
Marqui Lowery, Jr. CB - a key and experienced player in the maligned secondary.
Jacoby Windmon, LB - One of the leaders of this team that had a high upside expectation as he settled full time into linebacker. While his pass coverage has been suspect he provides athleticism and, if deployed this way, potential for some extra pass rush.
Two seniors across the defensive line: Dre Butler, DL and Khris Bogle, DE. This showed up throughout the game as the defensive line - previously touted as a deep strength for the team - failed to generate almost any pass rush on their own. That said, they did seem to stiffen against the run late in the game.
True freshman Chance Rucker got the start in place of Brantley and Lowery.
Rucker was tested twice in big situations on the first drive of the game. He had a great pass breakup on the first throw into the endzone. He then got isolated in press man coverage on a slant that went for an almost touchdown.
Both of those plays showed the upside for Rucker, even the almost converted touchdown. On both plays Rucker looked noticeably closer to his man than almost anyone else on this defensive secondary. The first play showed the ability to stay with a man and close to break up a pass. The second one showed a well thrown ball that was well covered by Rucker, even if replay may have shown Rucker never got his man truly down he still showed the ability to tackle in space.
Michigan State’s secondary was so suspect coming into this game it’s hard to say if the injuries helped or hurt. Rucker looks like a real option going forward. His fellow young defensive back Dillon Tatum had a few decent plays in the game as well. In the end, it took a strategy change by defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton to start blitzing from the secondary that changed the defense.
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 there by an adjustment next week?
Early on Noah Kim showed us a microcosm of his season so far. He has some pinpoint passing; has enough speed to be semi elusive and can pick up some yardage on the ground; and gets unsettled easily and makes mistakes.
He still does not look helped by the play calling. Multiple plays required a 360 degree spin as part of the play action and roll out that ended in broken plays. The up tempo, while semi effective on their second drive, still looks like it speeds Kim up too much. His terrible interception on the first drive was on an unnecessary “up tempo” decision to quick snap after a first down completion on a scramble.
On the fourth drive Kim showed some actual savvy and game feel. Stepping up in the pocket and a quick throw to the sideline led to a nice offensive play to convert a first down. On the next play, a first down safety blitz that would have had Kim cowering a week ago he looked down and smartly threw over the head of a receiver tightly covered and drew the pass interference penalty.
Those are the types of level headed plays Kim needs to stay the starter. Even as the drive ended in a field goal attempt, it featured two drops by wide receivers. Minus the bad early interception, Kim started to show competent quarterback play during the first half.
The second half saw some forced throws by Kim who clearly wanted to spark the offense. Despite leading a touch down drive in the second half, those forced throws ended drives and resulted in his second interception. A fumble (that was recovered) on a bad sack ended his day. Kim showed the upside he may have, he also showed the potential limitations.
More than anything Kim looked like a QB with potential still figuring out what he will be: safe and accurate; gunslinging and exciting; indecisive and scared. All three showed up today. It’s unclear what shows up in next game.
Will we see Kaitin Houser get snaps before garbage time?
Yes. Houser came in during the 4th quarter with this game still technically in question. That was the first reps he’s taken against a first team defense and the results were decidedly mixed (see below).
Can Michigan State clean up the penalties?
Early on the answer seemed to be no.
Tight end Jaylin Franklin was called for holding on first and goal in the first quarter. This was BAD technique by the receiver. He had to pin the defender inside and instead turned the opposite way, requiring a hold - and making the call very easy for the official. That is bad coaching.
After MSU turned the ball over on downs on the 5 yard line, a defensive penalty by Adelye for throwing the QB to the ground, way after the play was over, converted a first down and gave Maryland a ton of breathing space. Instead of 3rd and 2 on their own 13 yard line, Maryland had first down out by the 30-yard line. This was a late flag that showed a lack of discipline by players that have zero margin for error.
Eventually, MSU seemed to settle in. There were penalties down the stretch but not at the scale of the week before. Except for the Spencer late hit and near targeting call, this looked like an area of actual improvement in this game.
Questions Coming From of the Game
Can Michigan State both be in exactly the same situation as last week AND look better?
Yes. Michigan State was down 21 to nothing with more than 8 minutes left in the second quarter. On paper this looked like a repeat of the blowout by Washington the previous week. In reality, the same numerical situation felt different - and that could be important down the road.
Washington exposed MSU in every facet. Maryland is winning (at least in part) because MSU is turning the ball over. MSU turned the ball over on two of their first three drives. The other drive was a near full field methodical drive that was stopped on an aggressive 4th and goal on the 1-yard line. That drive changed how this situation felt.
There was almost nothing to build on - particularly early - against Washington. Already, at taht point in this game against Maryland Michigan State showed more offensive capacity (note: not competence yet) in the first two quarters than at any point in the Washington game. Even Michigan State’s no-resistance defense had excuses at this point - two short field starting points for Maryland’s offense would be hard to overcome for anyone. Still, the team is down 21-0 enroute early for another blowout loss.
Is gunslinger Noah Kim a good thing or bad thing?
Noah Kim has been the definition of safe this season. He has had two modes: flustered QB unable to do anything or pinpoint passer. This game saw both of those traits and a third element emerge: gunslinger.
In this game, Kim settled in (after an early flustered interception) and started pushing the ball. His first half was heavily dominated by pinpoint passing. Early in the second half, he tried something new and started forcing the ball. Kim threw an interception on a forced throw at the start of the half, that could have been termed a 50-50 ball that the receiver let go. On the second possession of the half, Kim almost followed that up with a forced throw interception. Replay saved the day as the defender seemed to bobble the catch.
Interceptions are bad. That is clear. Still, Noah Kim starting to take some chances could be good for MSU down the line. If his receivers can win some fifty fifty balls and Kim can learn to force the ball ONLY when necessary, it could be a good combination. Or it could be the safe quarterback turning into a turnover machine. Unfortunately, that is also a possibility.
Katin Houser - the next QB?
Kim is replaced with 11 minutes left in the game and the score 24-9. Kim threw two interceptions and had a fumble on his last possession. Overall, the offense was the problem today. The question is how much of that was Kim and how much of that was everything else. Kim was three bad receiver drops from having the half time score be 21-14 on 17 for 23 passing. It may not matter if the offense simply moves better with another QB.
Houser came in like a guy that the offense moves around - even if its not clear that Houser is truly better at the position. Houser had some predictably bad throws for a young QB. He also got helped by receivers making some plays. It may be moot after Houser threw a terrible interception that was a blade of grass and an open field stumble away from a pick six.
Still Houser lives large as the obvious choice for a vocal segment of the Spartan fanbase. Even with the interception, this drive will have that contingent loudly proclaiming Noah Kim should be benched.
Same Leavitt - the next QB?
In a sign this team is desperate for anything, they put Same Leavitt in for garbage time. Coming in with less than 90 seconds left and Maryland clearly waiting for the clock to run out, it’s hard to assess the play. The results: One sack for a loss (protection breakdown); two completions (the second thrown back shoulder way behind the first down line); and one scramble for a first down as time expired. Somewhere, someone will be shouting - “See! This guy should start!”
That’s not me at this time. It’s more concerning that one of Leavitt’s four games was burned for less than 90 seconds of game time. That smacked as an attempt to keep Leavitt engaged before the bye week when many players will be considering transferring out.
What Is the Outlook for This Team After Four Games?
Better than after the Washington game. On paper, MSU got blown out. In reality, MSU played with Maryland for more than 2 quarters. Maryland is not “great” but they could be middle of the road in the Big Ten this year. If MSU can limit the turnovers, fix whatever the heck is happening with the special teams and start calling more appropriate offensive plays they could win against the middle and lower part of the Big Ten.
Unfortunately, it looks like they will get stomped by the upper echelon teams.
How MSU does outside those games against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State may depend on how many players decide to stay over the next two weeks. The upcoming bye week may be the most crucial internal recruiting period this program has ever faced.
Questions for Next Week
- How many players will decide it’s time to enter the transfer portal and/or sit out the rest of the season due to the chaos surrounding the Mel Tucker situation?
- Will we see more of Katin Houser? What about Sam Leavitt?
- Has the defense found a potentially winning (or at least semi competent) strategy in blitzing from the secondary?
- Will Jay Johnson finally adjust his play calling to suit young QBs who desperately need rhythm?
- Can Michigan State actually use the up tempo approach after first downs effectively?
- Will Michigan State stay aggressive on play calling game moment decisions (like 4th down decisions)?
- Can Michigan State limit the turnovers?