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Michigan State Beats Richmond: Post Game Grades for The Spartans

Michigan State found its form in the second half and blew the Richmond Spiders out. Unfortunately, the whole game didn’t feel quite so good.

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

In taking on the Richmond Spiders in week 2, Michigan State ended up with a blow out win over a significantly weaker opponent. For the second week in a row the Spartans started very slowly. Despite amassing a 17 to 0 lead in the first half, statistically the game looked substantially closer than anyone would have expected. An absolutely dominant third quarter pushed the game from an uneasy feeling to a laugher, leaving the fourth quarter for garbage time.

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: The Richmond Spiders are simply not in the same category of football as Michigan State. This is not hyperbole, this is actual fact. Richmond is an FCS school while MSU is an FBS (one letter means a lot). This means Michigan State has 85 scholarship players while Richmond only has 63. While Richmond had a competitive year last year and made the FCS playoffs, the year was an anomaly for a team that has largely hovered around .500 in recent history.

Richmond came into this year with newly installed co-offensive coordinators, a new QB, and a new QB coach. Their pre-season top 25 FCS ranking (based largely on expected defense) was exposed as potentially fraudulent after Richmond got beat by a not very good FCS team in Morgan State. Richmond could generate almost no offense in that game, and their defense played just ok.

To put it simply, this game should have been a blowout from the first kick. The first half where Richmond matched MSU in almost every statistical category except 3rd down conversions and points (admittedly key stats), was NOT a good outcome for MSU when taken in context of a season full of much much stronger opponents.

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

Similar to the opening game against central Michigan, Michigan State’s offense was a tale of two halves. During the first half MSU still looked hesitant and out of sorts. The two most concerning elements in the first half was the offensive line’s lack of push (or any sort of control) of the line of scrimmage and the playcalling.

The offensive line MIGHT have the excuse that Richmond’s sole strength was supposed to be their defense (particularly their front 7), and the Spiders stacked the box with 8 for most of the start of the game. Still, not pushing around an opponent like this is a serious concern moving forward.

The playcalling early on also seemed too cute. A flea flicker on the first play of the game is simply not needed. Line up, give your QB some straightforward reads, and let the ball fly in rhythm. Instead, the play calling contributed to an 0-3 start for Kim as the young quarterback threw high and wide repeatedly.

Compare that to the opening play calls in the second half and you see a stark difference. The Spartans opened the second half with a rhythm 12 yard completion, a full drop back 29 yard pass and a creative end around toss to Foster that kept Richmond off balance by going side to side. During the dominant third quarter, Michigan State continued to put Kim in rhythm throws and plays where they moved the ball side to side before going north and south.

Noah Kim answered some questions after he turned in a near flawless game. After he opened 0-3, and 1 for 4, Kim didn’t miss a pass. He finished 18 for 22 with 292 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also added 21 yards in smart running. Kim’s arm looked on target, his decision making mostly good (he did have two potential interceptions that he lucked out on - one even turned into a completion to a Spartan receiver standing in the vicinity), and his willingness to push the ball down the center of the field impressive.

All of this and we haven’t mentioned the awesome game by Nathan Carter who averaged 5.8 yards per carry, amassing 111 yards and 3 touchdowns. Carter continues to show that he may be a truly complete back. Runs in this game had finesse, speed and power. The step up to Washington next week should tell us a lot about Carter, particularly if the other running backs (particularly Berger) are injured.

So while the Spartans eventually turned in some stellar performances, the offensive line play lowers their game grade to a B plus and their competition - and lack of dominance in the first half - makes that a C on the curve.

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

The curve score would have been worse if the grades came out at half time. Looking at the box score, I am sure there are many who will disagree. On paper, Michigan State dominated key stats. Until the fourth quarter the defense pitched a shutout. Also until the fourth quarter, the Spartans didn’t allow the Spiders to convert a third down. These are impressive stats. The problem was still that first half.

The Spartans struggled in week 1 to contain a truly fast QB when he scrambled, against a much slower Wickersham in this game, the defense still struggled. Wickersham was a big reason the Spiders almost matched the Spartans for rushing yards in the first half. He is also a reason we still don’t know much about the Spartans secondary, as he simply is not that strong of a passing threat.

Despite the skepticism, Michigan State continued to wrack up tackles for a loss and sacks. MSU recorded 13 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks. These are impressive stats, and overall it was a dominant performance.

The low score on the curve is driven by how bad the Richmond team looks generally on offense. I almost wanted to give them a lower score on the curve, but there is an argument that perhaps my expectations that Richmmond would get zero first downs against MSU’s defense is too high a bar (ha!).

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

While the Spartans clearly had two significantly different halves, the special teams had an up and down game nearly throughout. There were incredible highs in this game - and some simply promising moves - but also some mistakes that lowered their grade.

On the highs: Michigan State’s long snapper recovered a muffed punt catch by Richmond to give a sputtering MSU offense a short field and eventually their first touchdown. This was a key play of the game, and helped break an uneasy feeling that MSU was somehow going to find a way to play down to Richmond’s level. It was GREAT coverage that capitalized on a mistake by the other team. On special teams especially that is sometimes the best you can hope for in a game.

Also on the highs was the 52-yard field goal in the first half. Even if that field goal didn’t determine this game, the fact that the Spartans HAVE a kicker that can make it from that distance is hugely important. Ignoring the fact that the kick bounced off the cross bar, this is a massively important development. If MSU finds itself in tight games - which they most likely will if they have a good season, a kicker that can hit from long range will be crucial.

On the negatives, the Spartans allowed Richmond to convert a long 4th down fake punt into a first down and had a delay of game setting up for their first extra point attempt. These are black marks on any special teams unit.

Add to that the fact that so far Michigan State’s returns have been pedestrian and you get a bit of concern. Particularly against an FCS opponent with substantially less scholarshipped players, Michigan State should have exploited their depth to have at least one notable return. While not objectively a terrible thing to say, ‘eh, it was fine’, on the curve these returns are a negative.

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

In a game against such an overmatched opponent coaches usually have more to lose than to gain in terms of assessment. In this game, the coaches were largely fine. Offensively, there was no opportunity for Jay Johnson’s infuriating play calling on short yardage situations, and there were very few times true high tension strategy was called for in the game.

The negatives in the coaching included a sense that while the team started with less nerves, the early product on the field felt very uninspiring. The playcalling did not help the offense, and MSU spent much of the first quarter looking equally matched to the far inferior Richmond. These coaches need to figure out a way to script out a start to the game that is faster, and plays to the teams strengths.

On the defensive side the team looked under prepared to contain Richmond’s QB. The scouting report on Richmond was clear. Wickersham is a big bodied scrambling QB with suspect accuracy and limited experience. This meant the universal expectation was Wickersham would be more of a threat on the ground than in the air. He matched that perfectly in the first half, becoming Richmond’s leading rusher and almost matching the yardage for Michigan State’s leading running back.

On special teams, the failure to get the PAT squad on the field and organized in time to avoid a delay of game falls on the coaches.

And in a final indictment, the one time actual in game strategy was called upon, Michigan State’s decisions were questionable at best. Late in the first half, MSU used timeouts in an effort to get Richmond to give them the ball back with time left to get a quick score going into the mid game break. Michigan State was leading 17 to nothing, but had really only had one convincing offensive series, and Richmond’s offense had almost matched MSU. It was clear a half time reset was needed.

Instead the Spartans chose to extend the half to try to get the ball back. Fine. it’s an aggressive move that is defensible. What seemed odd was the decision to take MSU’s final third timeout after Richmond had converted a first down with less than a minute left. MSU no longer had enough timeouts to give themselves the ball back with time, and instead this time out simply gave Richmond an extra stop of the clock on their own attempt to score before half. MSU got lucky that Richmond missed their field goal at the end of the half, or this odd choice would have had real impacts on the score.

On the positives were the mid game adjustments. The defense became dominant in the third quarter and until late in the game truly controlled Richmond. On offense it seemed like they may have finally found a rhythm and style with Noah Kim that could be very important for next week’s matchup. The coaching was not bad, it simply could have been better coming into the game and needs to be better against stronger opponents like next week’s Washington squad.

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

For one quarter, Michigan State looked like the dominant Big Ten program they should be. That third quarter would have been an absolute A. Unfortunately, the game has four quarters. Ignoring the late garbage time stuff, Michigan State still struggled for at least half of the first quarter, had only one convincing offensive drive in the entire first half, and made enough poor decisions to raise some concerns. Add to that a lingering sense that the offensive line struggled against a far inferior opponent and you get the curve grade of just a C.

How do you grade Michigan State for this game?