Regardless of the outcome Saturday night, Michigan showed it wasn’t the No. 7 team in the country.
But Michigan State made that a certainty, upsetting the Wolverines, 14-10, on their home field, with just enough offense, capitalizing on an early turnover, and a relentless pass rush that made Michigan quarterback John O’Korn miserable all night. For all the Michigan fans who wanted to see O’Korn take over for the injured Wilton Speight, the senior looked like a quarterback who hadn’t played regularly in nearly three years and was making his first start of the season.
The fact that Michigan still had a chance to win this game despite five turnovers — including three interceptions by O’Korn — is a testament to how well its defense played in the second half, allowing the Spartans only two first downs (on MSU’s final possession). The defense gave the Wolverines’ offense plenty of opportunities to chip away at a four-point deficit or take the lead that were ultimately squandered. But a team is rarely going to win when committing five turnovers. Taking that into consideration, it would’ve been embarrassing for Michigan State to lose.
Michigan’s first turnover may have been the most costly. The Spartans’ Joe Bachie ripped the ball from Ty Isaac’s right arm, giving Michigan State the ball at the Wolverines’ 46-yard line. Six plays later, quarterback Brian Lewerke ran 14 yards for a touchdown and a 7-3 lead that MSU never gave up. Isaac letting the ball get torn from his grip earned him a spot on the sideline for the rest of the first half. He was hardly the only Michigan player who didn’t take care of the ball Saturday night.
But even right before the half, when a field goal would have made it a one-score game for Michigan, tight end Sean McKeon also committed a costly fumble that ensured the margin stayed at 11 points and maintained a steep uphill climb for the Wolverines.
Considering the rainstorm that was creeping toward Ann Arbor and the downpour it unleashed upon arrival, it’s impressive that there weren’t more turnovers in the game. Michigan State took care of the ball well, thanks to the sure-handed Lewerke and a conservative game plan that didn’t risk any chances with the wet conditions and a lead to protect. Being down 14-3 at halftime didn’t bode well for Michigan, as throwing the ball was likely to be difficult in heavy rain.
As it was, O’Korn wasn’t throwing particularly well, nor was he demonstrating any pocket presence. On the ABC telecast, analyst Kirk Herbstreit rightly pointed out that O’Korn wasn’t letting the pass plays develop. If his first option wasn’t available, he’d decide to run out of the pocket. O’Korn’s mobility helped at times against an oppressive Spartans pass rush, but it also prevented him from letting his receivers get open.
With the exception of an opening drive when Michigan ran the ball well, the offense could never maintain a rhythm nor sustain a drive. Sure, you could possibly blame two of O’Korn’s interceptions on the rainy conditions. But the offense playcalling didn’t provide much help against that Michigan State pass rush either. Whether it was Jim Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno or passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton, there was never any adjustment to call more short passes, slants, or any sort of misdirection plays that might move the pocket, give O’Korn more time and maybe utilize his skills better.
Of course, it doesn’t matter what sorts of plays the coaches call or how well a quarterback throws when a receiver can’t catch a ball that’s right in his chest. No, college players shouldn’t be criticized the way pros are because of their age and experience. But Eddie McDoom committed one of the worst drops in recent memory by failing to catch a ball at the 31-yard line that would have put Michigan in a position to win the game with 19 seconds remaining.
As a Michigan fan, I’ve wondered for most of the season why McDoom hasn’t seen as much playing time when he looked like a potential star last year. Maybe this is why. He’s been outplayed by the likes of Tarik Black and Kekoa Crawford. Perhaps some of that has to do with preparation and focus. McDoom certainly had a chance to redeem himself and make a play that would’ve assured him being remembered favorably for weeks, months and maybe years to come. Instead, the sophomore dropped Michigan’s chance at a nearly inexplicable victory in a game they didn’t deserve to win. How McDoom responds to this might be one of the more intriguing storylines through the rest of the season.
For Michigan, the rest of the season suddenly looks tougher than it may have already been. On social media, some Wolverines fans are already declaring the season over. Will there be a hangover next week against Indiana? There’s surely no chance at a win versus Penn State in State College in two weeks. A three-game stretch against Rutgers, Minnesota and Maryland may salvage a good season for Michigan, but those final two matchups against Wisconsin and Ohio State could be brutal. That is, unless an offense that’s struggled all season can get in sync and a quarterback who’s likely to play for the rest of the season can show some improvement and make the most of an unexpected opportunity.
For a Michigan State team that surely didn’t receive enough credit in this article, a coveted win over its in-state rival could be the springboard to a better-than-expected season. The Spartans could win their next three games against Minnesota, Indiana and Northwestern. And their chances versus Penn State could be better with the game in East Lansing. After that is Ohio State in Columbus before a soft landing with Maryland and Rutgers.
Mark Dantonio always gets his team ready to play Michigan, and you can tell he truly savors beating Harbaugh. But his Spartans now look like they could be on to bigger things, showing that preseason predictions were way off.