November 2, 2013 at 10:43 pm

John Niyo

Michigan had no clue how to handle Michigan State's brutalizing defense

East Lansing — The game was over, and Taylor Lewan, the bloodied face of Michigan’s offense on this day, was done talking about what went wrong.

But he was still calculating the damage in his own mind, and he wanted to see it for himself in black and white.

Moments after he’d left the podium inside a trailer outside Spartan Stadium, following Michigan State’s 29-6 demolition of archrival Michigan on Saturday, the Wolverines’ senior left tackle asked to take a peek at the final statistics. He only wanted to look at one number: The Spartans’ sack total.

Lewan put his finger on it — seven sacks, officially — closed his eyes for a second and cursed under his breath while fellow co-captain Jake Ryan took his exasperated turn answering questions from the media.

At that point, that’s all that was left to say, really. The Wolverines got blitzed Saturday, literally and figuratively. And what was most alarming to everyone on the visitors’ sideline, not to mention a Michigan fan base that certainly has had its fill of Al Borges’ wait-and-see offensive promise, was that they saw it coming.

Michigan State’s defense did what it always does. And Saturday, they simply did it again and again to their bullied brethren.

Seven sacks. A dozen negative-yardage plays. And even if you ignore all the sacks, a kneel-down and a 20-yard loss on a botched shotgun snap, Michigan still managed just 23 yards rushing on 20 carries.

Which seemed to be about 15 or so carries too many, frankly, though the Wolverines also managed to nearly get their quarterback killed Saturday. You could barely read the numbers on Devin Gardner’s jersey by the fourth quarter — “We basically lived in the backfield,” MSU cornerback Darqueze Dennard said — and he mercifully finished the game on the bench.

“He got pounded a little bit,” coach Brady Hoke said, when asked if that was more of a white flag than an injury. “I wouldn’t say an injury, I’d say beat up.”

Sharing responsibility

So who deserves the blame for that?

Lewan, whose forehead was a mess after a weeks-old cut reopened Saturday, insisted there wasn’t much question about that.

“That’s on us,” he said. “That’s on the offensive line and the running back, protecting their guy. I mean, we had a lot of full protections that they just got through. We didn’t do a good job of protecting the quarterback.”

No, they didn’t. But it wasn’t just the offensive line, as Hoke also was quick to note.

“There’s backs involved, there’s routes involved, there’s timing — all those issues are part of it,” he said.

Some of those issues certainly involve youth and inexperience on the interior line. Even Mark Dantonio, Michigan State’s head coach, pointed that out after the game.

“We looked for weaknesses and tried to exploit them,” he said. “They’re struggling on the offensive line a little bit, with people who’ve gotten hurt. They’re playing younger players.”

Redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis, benched as a starting guard earlier this fall but used as a sixth lineman at times Saturday, was lost on one sack. Freshman running back Derrick Green whiffed on another. Gardner appeared to run into a couple on his own as the pocket disintegrated around him. Sophomore Graham Glasgow hiked a ball halfway to Fort Wayne at one point, leading to a fourth-and-48 in the second quarter.

But what about the coaching?

Time to prepare

The Wolverines were coming off a bye week, and the Spartans were coming with what they always do, and yet it was mass confusion in the backfield for much of the afternoon.

“They ran a bunch of blitzes — a lot of the same, exact blitzes (they ran) in 2011,” Lewan admitted. “We just, when it came down to it, didn’t pick it up. That’s our job.”

But it’s this staff’s job to correct the mistakes, and that’s clearly not happening. Nor is the play-calling helping, whether it’s the play-action from under center on second-and-long or the shotgun runs with Fitz Toussaint that weren’t misdirection, only misguided.

If that third-and-2 call from the MSU 14 in the second quarter didn’t have Michigan fans howling, surely the series after the Spartans’ lone turnover did. An option run went for minus-5 yards, Gardner was sacked for a loss of nine, and then after a timeout he was sacked again for a 7-yard loss, leading to Matt Wile’s eighth and final punt of the day.

Borges knew his offensive line was facing a “huge test” this week. And he talked at length about “minimizing the damage,” which sure didn’t sound like a great strategy against an aggressive, attacking defense.

“We always have a plan for it,” Borges promised. “That’s all I can tell you. We’ll have a plan for it.”

Well, whatever it was, it failed miserably as the Wolverines finished with just 168 yards of total offense, or 2.8 yards per play.

Asked if he was satisfied with the play-calling afterward, Hoke didn’t hesitate.

“Yes,” he answered. “We wouldn’t have run the plays we ran if we weren’t satisfied.”

But he couldn’t have been satisfied with the results, obviously.

“Hindsight’s always 20-20, right?” Hoke said.

Right, but at some point there’s going to have to be some serious self-analysis about his team’s lack of an offensive identity. And a better explanation than the one Hoke offered after this game.

“There’s eight to six plays in a game like this that are going to make a difference,” he said. “And when you go back and you watch it again, you’ll see that there’s 8-to-6 plays that made a difference in this game.”

Eight to six plays? Even in the postgame press conference Saturday, Michigan was going backwards.

Michigan offensive lineman Taylor Lewan reflects the one-side battle in the trenches as Michigan State's defense overpowered U-M in a 29-6 Spartans' victory. / John T. Greilick / The Detroit News
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