MICHIGAN FOOTBALL 2017: SPARTANS SHOCK WOLVERINES IN TOUGH HOME LOSS, 10 TO 14.

The always pugnacious legions of Michigan State Spartans Football, and their dedicated fans marched confidently into Michigan Stadium Saturday, bent on destruction of the seventh ranked Wolverine’s heretofore unbeaten season.  

The turning point in the game occurred early, after Ty Isaac had produced a nice gain that was negated.

The ball was stripped and recovered by the Spartans. At that point Michigan momnentum went whoosh. Later, M’s WR Kekoa Crawford caught a 55-yard pass and broke the plane for a TD, but it was called back due to a stupid penalty.  Later, M’s Tight End Sean McKeon caught a 36-yard pass and had it knocked out and recovered by the Spartans.  Thus the game went as the errors piled up.

Before any of this the Wolverines had scored first. They hit a field goal after an impressive opening drive that culminated in a red zone stall.  That was their only lead of the game. A pair of fade passes into the end zone were off target and fell incomplete, so M was forced to convert a thirty yard  field goal. They keep going to red zone fades that. when missed, help facilitate their red zone woes.

The Spartan locomotive gained momentum after the fumble, and it was never really relinquished. As a thunder storm was expected in the middle third to fourth quarter, the Wolverines seemed on the sharp edge of defeat.

The story of this game is encapsulated in the fact that the Wolverines made errors and the Spartans made plays.  The Spartans had all the points they needed for a win at the end of the first half.

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Fresh off a 14-10 beat down of the Iowa Hawkeyes for their first Big Ten victory this season, the Spartans sported enhanced confidence. The Spartans always reek of aggressiveness, and cocky self-assurance, but the off season shennigans of some of their players, and the dismissal of a few of them, had engendered unusual quietude among the Spartan Nation this season to date. That is at an end now. And for cause. The Spartans came to play, seemed better schooled in the game’s necessity, and earned a tough win.  Unlike their last win in Michigan Stadium, this one was not the result of luck or a bad call.

THE AGRESSIVE SPARTANS OFTEN LIKE TO FEEL PUT UPON BY THE WOLVERINES: The bulging muscles of their mascot, Sparty, and the rakish hats and demeanor of their large band, perfectly describes their preferred milieu.  They recruit aggressiveness, and it is part and parcel of their team and fandom’s schtick.

They seem to do their utmost to maintain a perennial chip towards the Wolverines on their shoulder, always looking for an uttered action or statement of disrespect, that they can grasp to provide ammunition to pummel the hated Wolverines into a deeper respect for what they consider to be the superior qualities of Spartandom.  There seems to be a functioning tendency toward a desire to paint the Wolverines as arrogant equine related creatures.

Part of this may come from Michigan attempting to deny them membership in the Big Ten in 1953, and, before that in 1946, when they pasted MSC 55-0. The memory of that loss had an East Lansing half-life that would have daunted Marie Curie.  It lasted, and lasted, and motivated a trend that continues today.

Another part may stem from the Wolverine’s prominent place in football history, and the big shadow M casts as an academic institution.  Also, a little trash talk got to them.  They were incensed when former Wolverine Tail Back Mike Hart referred to their program as “a little brother”.  That remark caused a tornado of response from the Spartans, and a situation unheard of, (in my experience), where a Head Coach got into an off-field trash talking contest with an opposing player.

SPARTAN RESURGENCE: In the last decade there has been a genuine resurgence of Spartan Football prominence under Spartan Head Football Coach Mark D’Antonio.  Michigan’s forty-year football dominance evaporated under Brady and Rich Rod, and the Spartans slid upwards. Saturday. on the offensive side of the ball, it seemed that those eras had returned to the stadium.

A RIVALRY EXISTS: For much of recent history the Spartans have been a tough out for the Wolverines.  They have now won 8 of 10 last outings against the Wolverines. MSU has won the Big Ten Championship, and battled in the final game of the National Championship Play Offs. That the Wolverines have not yet managed those feats is still a sore point for the  Wolverines, and fans.

The Wolverines have sometimes been tripped up by bad luck in this series, as in the punter dropped punt attempt two years ago, and enduring an actual Spartan trip in the end zone of Desmond Howard, along with a bad call, as he tried to nab a game winning two-point catch late in a game.  Sparty slappies mismanaged the clock at the end of the game to win another in the infamous clock-gate incident. Anything can be expected in this annual rivalry battle, and not all of it good for the Wolverines.  That bad luck was not the cause of Saturday’s loss.

Most of the time, the key feature of the game has been the hard hitting, gritty nature of the play on both sides, as the winning team was usually the one earning the most rushing yardage.  This maxim has not always applied the past several years, but was applicable this year as the Spartans protected the ball. They outrushed the Wolverines, gathering 158-yards on 40 attempts.  M was held to 102-yards on 39 attempts. 

The Spartans were 11/22 passing for 94-yards and a TD. While the Wolverines were 16/35 for 198-yards.  The Spartans had a key fifty-yard strike on a beautiful catch of a ball batted by the receiver to himself.

Defensively Mo Hurst led the Michigan pack. He had six tackles and two assists for a total of 8.  They held MSU to 2 of 14 third down attempts.

The offense simply did not play well.  Unfortunately, that turned out to be the story of the game for the Wolverines.  MSU played in the same rain, but the Wolverines forced no TOs.  Both offenses struggled at times, especially in the rainy second half, but the Spartans did better than  the Wolverines.

The offense was guilty of 5 sacks of and 4 TFLS.  The offense still looks befuddled at times, and not very tough.  The backs don’t block effectively consistently, couldn’t hang onto the ball, and the OL does not look tough and sharp, still making myriad small mistakes. O’Korn showed good ability to escape, and he really needed to use it too often.  Three second half interceptions, rain or no rain, melded with two fumbles lost, result in losses losses every time.

Wilton Speight will not be back this year.  WOTS has long held he had an injury to three vertebra.  Reliable sources confirmed that Saturday.  So for this season, for better or for worse O’Korn is the man, with Brandon Peters on deck.

In a pregame interview, M’s great defensive lineman Mo Hurst indicated that he was not aware of the rivalry, before enrollment, but that he became aware in the first game he played. He said he saw a new level of intensity when he was double teamed and hit under the jaw.

The Green Meanies have played some good football under D’Antonio, and the Wolverines have some scars on their record to prove it.  This edition of the Spartans proved their mettle again.

Last season the Spartans were thoroughly whipped by the Wolverines in their down season.  They had three wins and nine losses, and had an off season of player scandals.   This season it appears that the Spartans have regrouped. They have already improved their number of wins, having already exceeded last year’s win total.

The Spartans have often played their best against the Wolverines, and they did again Saturday night.  While neither team looked great, the Spartans collared a Big Ten win in hostile territory.

THE GAME STAKES:  Besides football dominance in the State of Michigan, and in addition to football records, there is a more personal aspect to this game.  This game is a contest that involves strong loyalties between members of immediate families, co-workers, and acquaintances.  There are therefore often daily reminders of a loss, and sometimes a rearrangement of the facts to suit the trash talker.  There is a large degree of personal pride involved for many fans on both sides, who want to rub the nose of the loser in it.

As much as we abhor Ohio State University, one does not see their fans every day if you stay off High Street, but living in central Michigan, there are Spartans all over the landscape. 

A certain number are vocal win, lose, or draw, but most turn up the volume after a win.  The Wolverine’s coaches usually deny this is a special game, and hold to OSU as the most important.  That may be because the OSU game has so many times furnished a direct path to championships as a top of the league battle.  Yet, there is convincing proof MSU is also a rivalry of note.

PAUL BUNYAN NEEDED TO STAY HOME: A neglected aspect of this game is the desire to own the Paul Bunyan Trophy.  Initiated by Governor “Soapy” Williams in 1953, it was received in Ann Arbor at first with muted enthusiasm as it was designed to celebrate the entry of the Spartans into the Big Ten Conference.

Paul still does not earn the reverence afforded an icon like the Little Brown Jug, but it is painful to see him in the unhappy circumstance of living in East Lansing again for an extended period of time, or at all.  He will spend another year in MSU captivity.

THE OFFENSE AND DEFENSE MADE A STAB AT A WIN IN THE SECOND HALF, BUT THREE INTERCEPTIONS AND OTHER ERRORS IN THE HEAVY RAIN CUT THEIR PROGRESS SHORT.

Michigan State received to start the second half and the defense held them to poor field position.  M turned field position into what appeared to be their first TD on an eighteen-yard pass to Grant Perry.   The refs said his knee was down at the one-foot line. Actually, it was his back side that landed first as he entered the end zone leaning backwards. But Kahlid Hill finished the task with a tough plunge, and the Wolverines had finally scored a TD.  It was 10-14.

But the rains came, and John O’Korn threw his three interceptions that turned momentum in the second half. Both offenses stalled and the defenses slogged it out against them.  The rains did not help, but at least one of those passes, if not more, were hurried passes tossed into a crowd.  Part of that fault belongs to the leaky backs and OL, but some fault resides as well with  O’Korn.  He was often harassed, but it was not his best day.

THIS IS NOT THE DEATH KNELL OF THE WOLVERINE’S SEASON: It will just seem like it for least forty eight. There is a lot of season left and a lot left to be earned and learned, but M’s unexpected stumble at home against D’Antonio’s crew is a remarkable achievement for the Spartans, and a real blow M pride.

This win will get the Spartan horde off of D’Antonio’s back, at least for a while.  It did nothing to reinforce Harbaugh’s portfolio.  All those calling Harbaugh overrated will be gloating.

This was not Michigan’s night as there were too many M mistakes to be overcome.  The conditions for the last half of the game were terrible, but the same weather existed for both sides, even if it is true that the team behind has to throw more in the downpour.

Bring on Indiana.  The Hoosiers will present an entirely different set of challenges. How the Wolverine’s respond to this loss will reveal a lot about their character.

Go Blue!

The Tape, The Tape, The Tape – Peppers On Offense

Jabrill Peppers
Jabrill Peppers

Six games down, six games to go in the regular season.  As Michigan navigates into the meat of the conference schedule, I thought it would be interesting to track how the offensive staff has used Jabrill Peppers and what that may mean for match-ups down the road.   In the short year and a half of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure it has been fascinating to watch him build off of a litany of different looks and motions to put his players in positions to succeed on the field.  Additionally, with this staff it’s safe to say that certain formations, packages, and plays are put on film for a reason.  We’re a far cry from the Diamond Formation frustrations of yore, thank goodness.

So, Peppers.

Jabrill’s first offensive touches last year occurred on the road against Minnesota.  He finished the ’15 campaign with 18 carries for 72 yards and 2 touchdowns, 8 catches for 79 yards, and one incomplete pass attempt.  It wasn’t much of a leap this offense to predict that he would have an increased role in the offense.  Through the first half of 2016, his presence on offense indeed has increased, though a cursory glance at the box score does not tell the full story of his impact.  To date, Peppers is credited with just 5 carries for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns through six games.  This does not account for the eight snaps he has taken at QB or the times he has been on the field as a wideout both in motion and static as a decoy.   We’ve seen him in a lot of different areas on offense and with the ball in several different spots on the field.

The defenses remaining on the schedule grade out thusly based on S&P+ advanced stats at Football Outsiders:

  • Illinois: 70th overall, 122nd rushing,  88th passing
  • Michigan State: 59th overall, 84th rushing, 102nd passing
  • Maryland: 44th overall, 110th rushing, 24th passing
  • Iowa: 34th overall, 83rd rushing, 36th passing
  • Indiana: 30th overall, 27th rushing, 21st passing
  • Ohio State: 7th overall, 30th rushing, 7th passing

The trend is a slow but steady uptick over the course of the final six games in the level of defense that Michigan will be facing.  For the sake of reference, Wisconsin grades out at 5th overall, 7th in rushing, and 13th in passing defense.  This all adds up to a scenario where I fully expect an increase in Jabrill’s snaps going forward, particularly at QB and RB where Harbaugh can dictate the matchups he wants to help even blockers vs tacklers.  I would hazard a guess that this is also why you’ve seen Shane Morris in spot duty thus far out blocking, as well as why he played some at wideout in the spring game.  Let’s take a look at some plays after the jump…

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M FOOTBALL 2016: SUPERB DEFENSIVE EFFORT THROTTLES BADGERS: 14-7.

2016-wisc-042Finally the fans in Michigan Stadium got to evaluate this year’s edition of their Wolverine’s against a well-coached and ranked team with talent, grit, a physical capability and aggressive attitude. At game time, M was ranked 4th in the nation.

Wisconsin’s Badgers entered the Stadium as the eighth ranked team in the nation, undefeated in four games. The Badgers held notable victories over LSU at home, and Saturday before last Spartan Stadium rang with the Badger’s victory cheers. The tough Badger’s defense swarmed and smashed the Spartans 30-6, displaying unexpected excellence.

Badger LB, J.W. Watt was outstanding in that game, making 6 tackles, and nailing 2.5 sacks plus 2 QB hurries, again Saturday. Week before last he was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. He was outstanding against the Wolverines Saturday, too.

Wisconsin unveiled a Freshman QB in his first start at MSU. He was up to the occasion, tossing for 195-yards and a TD. He was named Big Ten Offensive player of the Week for facing down the Spartans. He did not produce as well against the Wolverines. He threw for 88-yards on 9 completions. He also threw 3 interceptions, with no TDs.

THE REMARLKABLE JOURDAN LEWIS INTERCEPTION: The Wolverines got three interceptions, one of which was by Jourdan Lewis.  That interception was “Woodsonesque” in the difficulty and improbability of its execution. Much like Woodson’s storied side line grab against MSU in 1997, which helped pave his way to a Heisman Trophy. This Woodson catch still radiates and is recalled with awe.

The Lewis effort came as he was airborne and falling backwards and leaping upwards with the intended receiver close behind him, he stretched one arm up and filled his hand with football, caught it against his thigh, and hung on. Harbaugh indicated that he thought Lewis had jumped a tad early, but he hung at the top of the leap long enough to make the grab. Jourdan’s catch will have a similar half- life to Woodson’s.

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