EAST LANSING — William Gholston landed a right hook and the Wolverines hit the mat.
Wobbly and woozy, Michigan has 10 days until its next game to figure out what went wrong — 17 days until its next Big Ten road game.
Somewhere on its way down, Michigan lost itself. In between Gholston jumping on Denard Robinson’s head and viciously twisting his facemask and Gholston socking Taylor Lewan after a play or one of several Michigan State defensive lineman hurling Robinson’s helpless body to the turf long after the ball left his hand — somewhere in that mess — the Wolverines forgot about the fundamentals.
Brady Hoke decreed this would never happen. No matter how talented the opponent, how talent deprived the Wolverines, his team would always play with fundamentals and technique. Michigan’s identity was forged, and all else — the toughness, the opportunistic defense, the pro-style offense — would be birthed from that singular belief.
The indelible image of Robinson’s body lying on the field in East Lansing — the first time he appeared seriously injured all season as he exited the game with a bruised back — proved that Michigan State hadn’t forgotten its identity.
“Unnecessary roughness every play — that’s what we try to do,” Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi announced after the game.
“Sixty minutes of unnecessary roughness. I’m just happy it didn’t get called every snap.”
Six personal foul calls later, that is Michigan State football.
Narduzzi distinguished between stupid penalties like Gholston’s wrestling-match moves and aggressive penalties, which he encourages. If he were to yell at a defensive player for being flagged for a penalty of aggression, said player would think twice the second time around. But that’s not how Michigan State plays football.
Spartan defensive tackle Jerel Worthy said the defense’s game plan was to hit Robinson as many times as possible, knock him around and put fear in his eyes.
You may call Michigan State dirty. They call it “Dominance.”
They wanted to inflict their dominance over their opponent, Worthy explained it as if it were common knowledge. Edwin Baker, Le’Veon Bell and their offensive line play the same way, running down opponents’ throats until they’ve had their fill.
Gholston throwing a right hook or body slamming Denard Robinson seems all part of the plan, considering the Spartans’ identity.
“I don’t think I prepared them well enough to go into a physical football game,” Hoke said Monday.
“You get punched in the mouth and you come back and you punch back — not literally. But you come back and keep fighting. You don’t lose the composure of my fundamentals and techniques.”
With how Michigan State tossed Robinson around like a rag doll, senior captain Kevin Koger admitted he had to restrain himself from retaliating.
“(But) you don’t want to get a penalty and hurt your team,” Koger reasoned. “If that happens, you shouldn’t be in the game for Michigan.”
No, Michigan should’ve countered Michigan State’s antics and physical play with a left jab, another blow. Instead, Michigan suffered from a high amount of “game spasms,” which Koger said Hoke defined as mistakes a player makes in a game they wouldn’t make in practice, like a missed assignment or mental breakdown.
That’s the most concerning part about how the Spartans whipped the Wolverines: how everything we thought we knew about this Michigan team went out the window when the going got tough.
Tackling and blocking — two staples of a fundamentally sound football team — were Hoke’s two biggest issues with the game. They forgot to block a blitzing cornerback on a crucial 4th-and-1. And they couldn’t take down a charging 5-foot-11, 189-pound receiver — twice.
“I was interested to see how we would react as a team in that environment going in,” Hoke said Monday. “Because you don’t know until you go through it and see how we learn from it. And I know one thing: you can’t let one team beat you twice.”
The next time, if the Wolverines keep their cool, Robinson won’t get KO’ed if Michigan picks up the blitz. The defense won’t have to chase Baker all over. The Wolverines will be throwing the punches — figuratively.
It doesn’t matter what Michigan State does — or any opponent — if Michigan takes care of its own. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison turned a 100-something-ranked defense into a top-10 scoring defense with the same personnel. Al Borges is working with Robinson on becoming a true dual-threat, and he had a technically sound line to rely on. Being physical is fine. Fundamentals are better.
“It’s a focus,” said senior defensive tackle Martin said. “I think guys get caught up in what the other team is doing and not (themselves). It’s something that we can fix and that’s a good thing.”
Dirty or not, Michigan State was sure of itself. Michigan wasn’t.
All it took was one good punch to the face to wake up the Wolverines.
—Rohan can be reached at email@example.com or @TimRohan on Twitter.