The Case for Optimism (Michigan State 37, Michigan 33)

Because I'm sick of negativity. Can I help you?

Photo: Tyler Carlton

What do you want to hear? Should I come on here and recite Jim Harbaugh's record against rivals or in big road games? Is that going to do anything for anyone? Believe me, that's a much easier article to write, and it will probably get 10x the amount of clicks.

But if I do that, I feel I join the league of ordinary fans who were probably already looking for reasons to jump off the bandwagon. If I don't, then I'm a Harbaugh apologist. The simple truth is, I just don't care anymore. I like this team. This team has talent and leadership. This team is also young. That's why I'm not huffing and puffing about Harbaugh's record versus rivals like everyone else. I'm done doing that. Yes, it's frustrating, but we're also in year seven. I've gotten used to the temperature of the water. 

Michigan was in control of most of this game, despite a ton of setbacks and missed opportunities. Up 30-14 with just over 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, things were mostly going Michigan's way. The things that Michigan did wrong that cost them this game, believe it or not, are correctable in the short term if they choose to do so.

Michigan had three opportunities to break this game wide open.

The first was at the 7 minute mark in the first quarter, up 7-0, Blake Corum dropped a swing pass from McNamara in the left flat that was wide open. Corum had a ton of open field in front of him. Going up 14-0 early isn't a guaranteed victory of course, but in this matchup on the road, it's huge.

The second was 1:30 before halftime. The strip sack by David Ojabo which was recovered by Aidan Hutchinson in the endzone. That probably would've made it at least 27-14 Michigan going into halftime. It was ruled a fumble on the field then overturned after a lengthy review...far longer a review than the possible Walker bobbled fumble as he crossed the goal line on his 28-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter. I'll concede the Walker touchdown was questionable, but in no way was any replay angle enough to overturn the Throne fumble. 

Some say blaming the refs is a cop-out, but I completely disagree. Refs have a direct impact on the game just like the players and coaches do. It's a part of the game, like it or not. Right or wrong, Michigan was 0-7 on reviews on Saturday, most of which were huge breaks for the Spartans. I'm not saying all of those reviews were wrong, I would just like Big Ten refs to be incompetent in favor of Michigan once in a while, please and thank you.

The third was at 4:15 left in the third quarter, on 4th and 4 from the Michigan 29, when Payton Thorne hit Reed with an absolute dime at the 1 yardline. That single play (and the balls to call it and be right) changed the entire energy of this game. Up til that point in the second half, Michigan was in full control. But that single play ignited Sparty's offense, and energized that stadium. From that point on, Michigan's defense was on their heels.

But I digress. Not all was lost, even after McCarthy's fumble with 7 minutes left in the game. Michigan was still up 33-30 at that point, but all of the momentum was on Sparty's side. You could just feel the Walker touchdown coming. Sometimes both teams can look great and bad in the same game. That's what happened last Saturday in East Lansing. Momentum in a big game is an amazing thing to have.

Do I think Michigan State is a playoff team? No. Why? That secondary is pretty weak. And I don't think Peyton Thorne is good enough to get them there. And because they got every possible break in a big home game where their opponent gift wrapped a victory for them, and they won by four. Walker is a very talented running back. Heisman contender? We'll see. 

Moving forward, two things I think Michigan needs to address if they're going to have any success against good teams. 

First, they have to figure out how to handle tempo on defense. Far too many times, Michigan got caught with too many players on the field, or just guys not lined up before the snap. That's on Mike Macdonald to figure out how to get his defense more prepared. Joel Klatt brought it up at the beginning of the game as a weakness Michigan has, so you know other teams will try to exploit it as well.

The other thing Michigan needs to do is fix their redzone play-calling. They can drive the field all day, but once they get into the redzone, they stall out far too often. I love Jake Moody, but too many Michigan drives ended in 3 points. Got to punch it in. That's how to put away teams like Michigan State and avoid the dreaded momentum swings.

On the bright side...yes, there was a bright side...Michigan had 552 yards of total offense, including 406 yards through the air. Cade McNamara was 28 of 44 for 383 yards and 2 touchdowns, easily his best game as a Wolverine. Freshman Andel Anthony had a breakout game with 155 yards and 2 touchdown catches.. Erick All had his best game with 10 catches for 98 yards. For a passing game which was rightly doubted throughout the first 7 games of the season, I think Michigan emphatically put those doubts to rest. 

I was super impressed with Cade McNamara. He clearly asserted himself as Michigan's QB1 and a leader of this team. It'll get lost in the mix with everything else, but he drove Michigan up and down the field all day. Of Michigan's 13 offensive possessions, they only punted twice (although it really should've been 3 times, but Brad Robbins bobbled the snap on his second punt attempt and tried unsuccessfully to gain the first down himself). Again, fix the redzone play-calling, and this offense is on another level.

Defensively, it was an up and down game. Aidan Hutchinson was unblockable yet again...multiple missed holding calls on him and a lot of other defenders all day. The coverage was overall very good, giving up just 196 yards on 30 attempts and coming up with 2 interceptions. But again, the tempo issue is job one moving forward.

I think this loss, while it stings for us longtime fans, is not the death blow for this program. In fact, I think Michigan comes out of this stronger in the long run. At least that's what I'm telling myself, and I'm sure that's why you'll hear from these players and coaches over the next few days. Look, they're 7-1, ranked 9th in the country, with still a lot to play for. 

Strong teams get better after tough losses, weak teams don't. Everything I've seen from these Wolverines tells me they're not going to let one tough loss break them. Call it growing pains, call it whatever you want, I think this team is on the right path and I also think you learn a lot more from losing than you do from winning. Now it's just about how you move forward. 

This season is not over.

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