Merely two months ago, the thought of college football at Michigan Stadium this fall felt like an impossibility. Even less plausible was the thought of the Wolverines losing to Michigan State.
But on Saturday, No. 13 Michigan took the field against its in-state rival. The Wolverines probably wish they didn’t. Behind 196 receiving yards from freshman Ricky White, the Spartans (1-1) stunned Michigan, 27-24.
After two straight dominant Michigan wins, first-year Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker flipped the rivalry on its head. The Spartans limped into Ann Arbor coming off a double-digit loss to Rutgers — which entered the 2020 season riding a 21-game Big Ten losing streak — and left with Paul Bunyan.
Leading up to Saturday, the Wolverines had outscored Michigan State by 53 points in their last four meetings — three of which they won convincingly. Saturday’s shocker was arguably the worst loss of the Harbaugh era, and in his sixth season at the helm of the program, an enormous step backward like this is borderline unjustifiable.
From the start, it was clear Saturday wouldn’t be a runaway. A week after averaging over eight yards per play, Michigan (1-1) struggled to move the ball in the first half. The Wolverines’ offensive line consistently struggled to create holes, resulting in a net gain of just 21 yards on the team’s first 10 carries. It didn’t get much better after that, as the Spartans held Michigan to less than five yards per carry on the game.
“They played a little bit more over front defense early,” Harbaugh said. “And they got some tackles for loss. Earlier in the game, we were making plays or they were negative plays. And then their offensive line did a really good job protecting. We didn’t get any sacks or any kind of havoc type of plays defensively.”
Zero defensive havoc plays, to be exact. Harbaugh’s defense didn’t produce a single sack or turnover all afternoon despite ample opportunity.
After a Michigan State touchdown put Michigan in an early 7-0 hole, the Wolverines found success along the edge. A pair of true freshmen — wide receiver A.J. Henning and running back Blake Corum — found success along the sideline, with the latter taking a sweep to the pylon for the game-tying score.
But the game-tying score didn’t hold up for long. Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi stretched the field vertically, drawing a handful of crucial pass interference and holding flags on Michigan cornerbacks Vincent Gray and Gemon Green in the process. And when the defensive backs weren’t flagged, they were a step behind. Lombardi’s two deepest first-half completions — a 30-yard touchdown in the first quarter and a 53-yarder to set up the go-ahead score in the second quarter — exploited man coverage.
“They made the downfield throws and catches,” Harbaugh said. “They were able to finish drives just a little bit better than we did. And we would get into a rhythm offensively, then we’d not be in rhythm. (We) didn’t finish the drives the way we want to, the way we are capable of. And that cost us.”
Added sophomore safety Daxton Hill: “We really didn’t expect those (deep passes). The gameplan was really honed in on the run.”
It’s one thing to come in with an ill-prepared gameplan. It’s another to stick to it.
On Saturday, the Wolverines failed to make any sort of adjustment. Lombardi found White on another 50-yard deep ball on the Spartans’ first play of the second half, which set up a field goal that gave Michigan State a 17-10 lead. Lombardi finished with 323 passing yards and three touchdowns despite completing just 17 passes.
When Michigan’s defense needed a fourth-quarter stop, it couldn’t get one. Down 20-17, it was burned time and time again by White, who consistently exposed a coverage scheme that defensive coordinator Don Brown seemingly refused to change. Even after a personal foul in the red zone, Michigan State needed only two plays to score on first-and-goal from the 18-yard-line. The touchdown gave the Spartans a 27-17 lead with just five minutes left.
The deficit proved insurmountable for the Wolverines, who watched Michigan State hoist Paul Bunyan for the third time in its last four trips to Ann Arbor.
“The team is gonna own this,” Harbaugh said. “Congratulations to Michigan State, but we’ve got to own the loss and come back and find out where we can improve. … Each person looking at themselves — players, coaches, all of us — and strive to be a lot better.”