Detroit News staff writers analyze Wolverines' 14-10 defeat to Spartans at Michigan Stadium.
Ann Arbor — Michigan has a quarterback issue, an offensive line issue, a passing-game issue. Just as telling, and just as staggering, the Wolverines still have a rivalry issue.
Reports to the contrary, Mark Dantonio is not ceding control of the state to Jim Harbaugh, not anytime soon. The Spartans are right back where they love to be, where they plan to be, in firm control of their rivals. With their 14-10 victory in Michigan Stadium Saturday night, their rebound officially shot way ahead of schedule, and in the process, knocked No. 7 Michigan way off schedule.
You’re tempted to call it an improbable victory, but with eight wins in the past 10 meetings, the Spartans know exactly what they’re doing. They played like they know they own their rivals, exhibiting methodical assertion, while the Wolverines and quarterback John O’Korn simply fell apart, committing five turnovers.
Michigan State basically won the game before the heavy rain came — grabbing a 14-3 halftime lead — so there are no qualifiers. Dantonio was the savvy coach who took no chances once the Spartans took the lead, and waited for the Wolverines to self-destruct.
And oh, did Michigan ever oblige. This is one of the momentous triumphs in Dantonio’s storied career, considering how low the Spartans sank a year ago. And it’s easily the worst loss in Harbaugh’s two-and-a-half seasons here, as he and his staff looked ill-prepared. At the very least, they didn’t properly prepare O’Korn, who made his first start after Wilton Speight suffered a neck injury that reportedly may be season-ending.
Michigan was coming off a bye week, not that you could tell. Michigan had the touted defense — and it was smothering in the second half — but Michigan State’s defense proved to be more opportunistic.
It was apparent through four games the Wolverines’ offensive woes weren’t all tied to Speight, and sure enough, in a game that’s all about gritting and grinding, Michigan had nothing to lean on. The right side of its offensive line is a mess, and there’s a lack of big-play potential at receiver and running back. When the running game did start to churn in the second half, Harbaugh and his offensive staff inexplicably decided to let O’Korn throw, as the rain fell harder and harder.
A slippery rock
It made no sense. The Wolverines froze in the moment, as they tend to do against their rivals, and O’Korn uncorked some awful throws. In fact, after the rain began, O’Korn threw interceptions on three consecutive possessions. Why were they so intent on passing when it was clear O’Korn was hampered by the weather and his line and his own limitations?
“Yeah, you could criticize that,” Harbaugh said. “We were trying to run the ball. We were trying to pieces drives together, that’s what we were trying to do.”
You lose the turnover battle 5-0, you have no business even having one last shot, from 37 yards out, as the Wolverines did. When O’Korn’s final pass was knocked down in the end zone, the Spartans celebrated wildly, as if it never, ever gets old.
It has to be getting old for the Wolverines. Two years ago, they lost here on the miraculous muffed punt. This time, the Spartans did it slightly less painfully, but almost as surprisingly. There was smart play-calling in the first half from Dave Warner, taking advantage of Brian Lewerke’s mobility to knock back Don Brown’s aggressive defense. Lewerke’s 16-yard touchdown pass to Madre London that made it 14-3 was brilliant, as Lewerke faked a sweep handoff to receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. and hit London with a screen pass the other way.
But even with all Michigan’s enormous gaffes, starting with Ty Isaac’s fumble on the second drive, the Wolverines had a shot. They had it, and they tossed it away.
After O’Korn’s 17-yard pass to Grant Perry to the 1 set up the touchdown, the Wolverines trailed 14-10 midway through the third quarter. Just then, the rain began to fall and the wind swirled. After a couple ill-advised passes, the Spartans basically shut it down, and Michigan’s defense helped shut them down.
But at the precise moment the Wolverines seemed poised to assert themselves, they abandoned the run. Taking over at the 19 with 6:29 left in the third quarter, Karan Higdon ripped off consecutive runs of 5, 6, 6 and 6 yards. It was first down at the 42, and then Michigan started passing.
A holding penalty pushed them back, and two plays later, O’Korn threw the first of two interceptions to safety David Dowell. Lesson learned? Hardly.
On his first six passes after the downpour began, O’Korn tossed three interceptions. The Spartans didn’t get a first down in the second half until 2:13 remained, when Lewerke picked up his own fumble and scooted 4 yards on third-and-3, and that’s all they needed.
Maybe Michigan’s coaching staff put too much stock in O’Korn’s fine fill-in effort against Purdue. Or perhaps Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Tim Drevno and passing-game coordinator Pep Hamilton need to ask themselves hard questions about game-planning and play-calling. Because in the biggest game of the season so far, O’Korn looked lost.
“It was obviously, no secret, a torrential downpour,” O’Korn said. “But both teams have to deal with it, no excuses. … We had plenty of opportunities to move the ball. How many turnovers we have? Five? Six? You can’t expect to win when you turn the ball over that many times, and three of them were 100 percent my fault.”
Michigan offensive lineman Mason Cole on who is calling plays.
It’s considered Harbaugh’s specialty, identifying and refining quarterbacks, but Speight was struggling before his injury, and O’Korn finished 16-for-35 with four sacks. The Spartans brought plenty of pressure and O’Korn often felt it before it arrived. That’s where he needs help from the play-calling and the offensive line, which was juggled again.
And no, I don’t think there’s an easy fix somewhere on the bench. Just as Speight earned the starter’s job, you have to believe O’Korn was the clear backup over redshirt freshman Brandon Peters. There’s no indication of any change there, and in the aftermath of another tough loss, no sense of panic from the Wolverines.
“Everyone probably thinks the season is over — it’s not over,” tackle Mason Cole said. “We got a long season left.”
So do the Spartans, a more-uplifting 4-1 at the moment. After last year’s 3-9 misery, they’ve rebounded with authority. Even in Saturday night’s punt-a-palooza, the Spartans played under control, which comes naturally for them in this rivalry.
“We’ve done it eight times,” Dantonio said. “Done it eight times, so I don’t know why there’s a lot of doubt.”
There shouldn’t be, not ever. And with another swift gut-kick, the Spartans did what they do often, planting a fresh batch of doubt in their rivals.