MICHIGAN FOOTBALL-2015: WOULDA, COULDA, SHOULDA, AS SPARTANS MAKE IMPROBABLE LAST SECOND ESCAPE. M-23, MSU-27

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It was Michigan State’s Football Spartans versus the Michigan Football Wolverines Saturday at 3:30 P.M. at a jam packed, and noisy Big House.

Annually the rough and tumble Spartans want to play trick or treat with the Wolverines around Halloween. The Spartan mascot, that gruff, bulgy, mean effigy of Spartan Spirit, plays trick or treat with the hopes and dreams of Michigan fans annually. They had successfully dashed those hopes and dreams the last two years, winning the last two games in the unfriendly confines of Spartan Stadium. Last year’s iteration was a “whuppin” of the Wolverines 11 to 35. Spartan Head Coach D’Antonio now owns a sparkling 7 and 2 record against the Wolverines pregame.

This year’s loss was not a “whuppin”. In fact the Wolverines, with the dreadful exception of the last 10 seconds, when they experienced a special teams breakdown, had otherwise played well enough to win, and held a lead of 23-20 with 10 ticks on the clock.

Terrific defensive stands held the last ditch MSU offensive flurries, and the Wolverines had the ball with the intent of running out the clock. Three bumps into the line by D. Smith did not garner a first down, so a punt into the empty backfield of MSU was perfectly in order.

Maybe a quick kick on third down would have been fine. What happened wasn’t, as the special team gaffe described below ensued. The lucky Spartans, with the clock at all zeros, had prevailed. It was their first and final lead. Fate had played a nasty Halloween trick on the Wolverines.

The Wolverines had every intention of erasing some of the burnish from that Spartan’s season, and they did, but not to the desired degree. The Spartans had seemed a little more vulnerable this year, and they were. They had some significant injuries at key positions like the offensive line. MSU had lost four players for the year permanently, and had struggling to squelch the likes of Rutgers in a close win. Yet the Spartans pass protected well enough to gain 328-yards passing last Saturday.

The Wolverines had a lead with 10 seconds left, but they managed to turn the game around on a low snap, and on a bobbled ball, turning it over to the Spartans who ran it in for the game winning TD without so much as a thank you. This was the Wolverine’s most visible error, and it will be blamed far and wide for the loss. Unfortunately, it will have the half-life of plutonium.

The punter Blake O’Neill, had done a splendid job before the botched punt. He had an 80-yard punt, and had provided decent field position during most of the game. But the low snap on the last second punt and fumble unfortunately will be remembered over all the good he had provided, and probably that good which he provides in the future.

It is unfair and foolish to write nasty emails to him or otherwise try to denigrate, bully or threaten him. Published reports say this has already happened on social media, including death threats. Stuff happens on the football field. It is still only a game played by college kids. It is a time for perspective.

There were other M contributions to the loss. It was as much a team loss as it would have been a team victory. All they needed to win was one first down, one measly first down, but they couldn’t get it on their last drive for a number of reasons.

During the course of the game, they had two stalled drives that resulted in FGs instead of TDs. M’s momentum was stalled when the interesting targeting call was made on Joe Bolden, and he was ejected. M’s defense allowed a 74-yard play by a Sparty fullback. M was held to 62-yards on the ground and MSU to 58, but the Wolverine defense yielded 328-yards passing..

There comes to each coach and team a new challenge every week. Usually a team or a college football coach is only as good as his last game indicates. Here came a red letter game, one of the two this season that all thought would be the litmus test of the return to prominence of Michigan Football, and it was. This game reflected tremendous improvement over last year for the Wolverines. 

They were competitive against the stark reality of those wearing the most recent version of the Spartan helmet.

As always the Spartans were dedicated to bringing a fierce defense, playing aggressively and physically, and wearing that huge chip on their shoulder they manufacture and customize annually. The Wolverines answered in kind,

The Spartans will bray about this victory a long, long time. As the Wolverines would were the situation reversed

They also brought one of the best QBs in the B1G to Michigan Stadium. Their experienced QB Connor Cook can fling it, or thread the needle. They also brought the best group of receivers the Wolverines had had to defend all season. The highly recruited WR Aaron Burbridge, who disdained the Wolverines, has finally come into his own, and was a thorn in the Wolverines side all game long.

While it was thought that the Spartan defensive backfield was not up to last year’s standard, and could not excel as well in press coverage as last year’s iteration.  That seemed true, but their defensive line remained as good as ever. DE Shelique Calhoun is played well again.

While many outsiders were caught up only in the national rankings for each team, many on both sides were caught up in the chance to leap ahead in the Big Ten standings. This year it was more than just the rivalry.

This game was fraught with all kinds interesting aspects, some not usually seen in past Wolverine/Spartan meetings. National rankings, and a big step to become a genuine contender for a shot as the East Big Ten representative in the East/West Division title game, plus the usual unbridled fervor of this intra-state contest, that was intensified by the hyped up hype that was bestowed to newly minted M head man.

The Wolverines lost some of these chances, but still, according to Coach Harbaugh, played well enough to win. But then came those regrettable last ten seconds that finally sealed their fate.

I have a great respect for the intense physicality the Spartans bring to this game. They have often brought their best against the Wolverines, and have had some incredible strokes of “luck”, which continued Saturday. Such as the Desmond Howard end zone trip for a win, and clock gate (not all luck, but some design), and now comes last Saturday’s game ending ten seconds.

The first quarter was basically dominated by the Spartans. In the second M got it offense moving. Jake Rudock had a solid passing day going 15 of 55 for 168-yards with a long of 32. A series of short runs by Smith were supplemented byFB Sione Houma romping for 27-yard TD. Previously, Rudock had hit TE A.J. Williams with a well-conceived 21-yard third down pass.  M-7, MSU-0.

The Spartans answered quickly on an 11-yard TD run, aided and abetted by a controversial targeting call on Joe Bolden. This swung momentum and exited Bolden for the balance of the game and for half of the Minnesota game. Ouch! Suddenly it was 7 up.

Jabrill Peppers returned a kick 49-yards, on an outstandingly evasive run, but the Wolverines offense stalled, and and they settled for a 38-yard Allen field goal. It was 10-7 at the half.

Momentum swung M’s way in the Spartan’s first possession of the second half, as a fake punt was stopped by the Wolverines.

Enter Jabrill Peppers on offense for the first time. His 28-yard jet sweep took it to the MSU 3. The on field officials could not agree with the review cameras as two called TD’s were overturned. FB Houma finally punched it in, and the finally camera agreed. M-17, MSU 7.

On MSU’s next series, Cook tossed a 30-yard TD. M-17, MSU-14, and once again it was too close for comfort. M replied, but only with a field goal to make it 23-14.

In the final quarter, MSU gambled on a 4th and 10 from the M 32. The M defense stopped them, but the offense could only generate another Allen FG. It was important at the time, but inadequate in light of future game events. M-23, MSU-14. The Wolverines were done scoring.

The Spartans weren’t, as Connor Cook hit a steaking FB for a 74-yard play to M’s 1. The review showed no TD, but MSU easily put up six. M-23, MSU-21.

The rest is not pleasant history for Michigan fans. An outstanding M defensive stand, which stopped the Spartans out of field goal range on a 4th and 19 on a splendid play by DB Dymonte Thomas, was effectively nullified by the special teams error. Whether Punter O’Neill was trying to lateral the ball, or it got knocked into the air by a defender, is a moot point.

This was a very swift, and unpleasant change of fortune, similar to the last minute end zone reception by Colorado’s Kordell Stewart to make M a loser in 1994. This one will have a long shelf life for winner and loser.

It is ironic that the special teams, who made up for the yardage shortfall of the offense enough to gain the last minute lead, became the goat. Jabrill Peppers had a fumble on a punt return, but also returned three for 48-yards. He returned three kicks for 81-yards, with a long of 49. Jehu Chesson, in addition to being the leading receiver with 4 grabs for 58-yards and a long of 23, returned a kick for 25-yards. These yardages, and Blake O’Neill’s usually precise punting, provided admirable field position. Together with Kenny Allen’s hitting from 38, 21, and 38, and Allen’s KO touch backs, effective special teams are that which kept M in the game.  Just one little momentary error…….

The Wolverines will have a bye week in which to deal with healing, before possession of the venerable Little Brown Jug is contested yet again. We go from a trophy created through on purpose political purpose (the Bunyan) to a much more revered accidental trophy (The Jug). While it would be nice to have both on hand, that remains in the future. For now it’s the Jug, the Jug, the Jug.

Go, Blue!