A Look Back On The Sparty Stunner

It was early this morning that I sat down to watch my recording of Michigan State-Michigan, having spent the late afternoon/evening of Saturday with playoff baseball. When it comes to the shocking ending, there’s not anything I can add to what’s already out there other than to report that I sat in an empty house shouting “Oh my freakin’ gosh!” over and over. Here are a few thoughts on Michigan State’s 27-23 win…

–The inability of either team to run the ball was the most striking fact. Each team ended up with just 62 yards. In watching the game, it seemed like the Wolverines were a little more effective than the Spartans. Calling a running play usually seemed pointless for Michigan State, while De’Veon Smith had a few decent runs for Michigan.

But the final numbers don’t lie and neither does the fact that Michigan bogged down in the red zone at two key points, settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns.

–The Wolverine defense was hurt by a targeting call on linebacker Joe Bolden that resulted in his automatic ejection. The call on one of Michigan’s leading tacklers has been called “questionable”, but there was no question about it—the call was absolutely horrible and made even worse by the fact it was upheld by replay.

–The battle between MSU receiver Aaron Burbridge and Michigan corner Jourdan Lewis was highlighted by the ESPN coverage and was great to watch. Burbridge got his numbers—nine catches for 132 yards—but don’t discount Lewis based on that. Burbridge simply got a lot of targets, with the lack of a running game and his team playing from behind until the very end. Both players had their moments in the course of the game.

–If there’s a play that should really haunt Michigan, it’s the one that happened right after they had kicked a field goal to go up 23-14 in the fourth quarter. With the way the defense was playing, this should have been ballgame, right there. Instead, Michigan State fullback Trevon Pendleton caught a simple swing pass and rambled up the sidelines for 74 yards, setting up an easy touchdown.

Letting the fullback—an outdated position in most of today’s game—beat you like that? At least the fumbled punt was just simple human error. This play was a systematic breakdown against a player who should never have been able to gain more than ten yards on a completed pass.

–It’s ironic Michigan State won a special teams play, because their own performance in this area was really bad. The coverage woes were documented during the broadcast, and twice they had to pass up reasonable field goal attempts to go for it on 4th-and-long because of problems in the kicking game. They should have won the game 27-23 anyway, only with two field goals rather than a bizarre winning touchdown.

–Finally, let’s come to the epic last play. In the wake of the all-to-predictable outrage from ignorant bullies on Twitter and elsewhere in the cyberworld attacking the punter personally, we’ve had some well-intentioned people try and excuse it by saying the snap was low and finding other ways to excuse the play.

We do have to be candid here—the kid simply muffed the snap, and then appeared to panic by trying to kick it anyway, when the better course would have been to just fall on the ball and make Michigan State try a desperation pass to the end zone.

But being candid about the nature of the play doesn’t mean I can’t empathize with someone trying too hard on a big national stage and just overreaching. And being candid doesn’t mean we should lose of sight of the fact that it’s just a game. I’m going to guess that all of you who read this already agree with that though, so no point preaching to the choir. Let’s all just wish this young man well.

Looking ahead, the lack of a running game is going to present a big problem for these teams with their November games against Ohio State. I know the defenses of MSU and UM will cause their own set of problems for the Buckeye running game, just as they did with each other. But the way Ezekiel Elliot is running for Ohio State—153 more yards on Saturday night against Penn State, makes me think that completely shutting him down, along the lines of Saturday in Ann Arbor, is just not going to happen.

College football has changed, but you still need to run the football in the Big Ten. Penn State had its own strong running game on Saturday against Ohio State, with Saquon Barkley having a big night, even if the Lions did very little else right. Penn State still awaits both Michigan and Michigan State. And if, somehow either the Wolverines or Spartans make the Big Ten Championship Game, West frontrunner Iowa has a potent rushing attack of its own.

I do think both Michigan State and Michigan are better than Penn State and Iowa, so Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor likely settled who was the second-best team in the Big Ten. That likely means a Rose Bowl berth. I need to see better balance on offense before thinking either one will beat Ohio State.