Michigan State Goes To The Well One More Time

How many more times will Michigan State football go to the well this year? Their Week 2 win over Oregon, where Duck quarterback Vernon Adams overthrew a wide-open receiver on a potential tying touchdown suddenly looks tame by comparison to the adventures of Big Ten play. There were the bizarre finishes against Michigan and Nebraska—a win and a loss respectively. And now yesterday’s stunning 17-14 victory at Ohio State.

The aftermath of the game has focused not on Sparty, but on the Buckeyes’ playcalling. Running back Ezekiel Elliot, a Heisman contender at this time yesterday, only got the ball 12 times and gained 33 yards. ABC commentators Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit wondered repeatedly when Urban Meyer would open up the offense and work on the edges and down the field.

I wondered the same thing—that was supposed to be the advantage of putting J.T. Barrett in at quarterback, giving Ohio State the ability to run the option and throw the ball down the field off the option. We never saw it.

In fairness to Meyer and his staff, the rain and swirling wind that dominated this game for about three quarters put both offenses into disaster-avoidance mode. But that doesn’t explain away the fourth quarter, when at least the rain stopped. It doesn’t explain why Michigan State was able to move the football at key moments when Ohio State couldn’t.

Nor does the weather explain why the Buckeyes kept jumping offsides, including on a 4th-and-8 in the fourth quarter of Michigan State’s game-tying drive that made the ultimate conversion manageable. It doesn’t explain how the Buckeyes could get the game’s biggest break—Sparty’s muffed punt in the third quarter that gave Ohio State a gift touchdown from the six-yard line—and still lose at home.

We haven’t even gotten to the biggest point of all, which is where we shift into praising Michigan State. They did all this with a backup quarterback. Connor Cook’s shoulder left him a game-time decision and he couldn’t go. Taking away the big-play threat that Cook gave meant taking away wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, one of Sparty’s best playmakers. Kevin O’Connor ran a vanilla offense that was vanilla by the standards of the 1950s. Michigan State came into Woody Hayes’ old house and ran an offense that the late legend would have been proud of.

O’Connor, protected as he was by the playcalling, also showed some real moxie. On the game-tying drive he executed the read-option perfectly at least twice, including the 4th-and-3 set up by Ohio State’s lack of discipline. Michigan State’s coaching staff also did the little things right–they took the unorthodox move of setting kicker Michael Geiger up on the right hash for the winning field goal. Normally this is the kind of move I go ballistic over, since it means kicking back across your body. But an earlier miss had hooked left and Fowler noted Geiger’s problems this year have come with hooking it left.

Sure enough, the game’s final kick hooked dramatically left and if it had a couple more yards to hook, probably goes wide. Instead it snuck inside the uprights. The coaching staff that crafted a brilliant defensive gameplan and an appropriate offensive strategy also nailed it on something as small, but decisive as ball placement on the final field goal.

Yesterday was a magical moment for a Michigan State program that has had its share of them under Mark Dantonio. There will be those fans in Ann Arbor and Columbus, with their strong sense of entitlement, that will call Michigan State’s biggest victories this year a fluke. What I’m looking is that the Spartans are the team that doesn’t make the killer mistake. They don’t jump offsides at key moments. They don’t flub punts and then panic, making a situation worse.

It isn’t juicy, but it’s what wins football games. “Victory favors the team making the fewest mistakes,” a quote attributed to the great Bob Knight. Victory favored Sparty on Saturday.