Carrying On About Big Ten Football: October 3
Random trivia you care nothing about, part 1: this week's Microscope game, the showdown between in-state rivals Michigan and Michigan State, was ultimately decided on an overtime touchdown run by Larry Caper, a native of Battle Creek, Michigan.
Random trivia you care nothing about, part 2: this week's column, with a focus on the showdown between in-state rivals Michigan and Michigan State, is written by Tim Cary, a native of Battle Creek, Michigan.
Moving right along...
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: MICHIGAN STATE 26, MICHIGAN 20 (OT)
Five things that jumped out at me from the latest epic installment of the Wolverines/Spartans rivalry this weekend...
1. The Paul Bunyan Trophy game is not for the faint of heart.
In case you didn't notice, there was some serious hitting going on Saturday afternoon in East Lansing, Michigan. It was one of those games where you halfway expect to hear the public address announcer warn all the participants before kickoff: "Memo to wide receivers: go over the middle at your own risk."
I didn't need surround sound in my living room to hear the massive thuds, crunches, and collisions that permeated the 60+ minutes of football.
There were a handful of plays in particular where the quarterback put the ball on the money to his intended target, only to see the receiver rudely separated from said football by a violent encounter with the nearest defender. (Let's just say Carlos Brown won't forget Chris L. Rucker anytime soon.)
Bottom line: these teams don't like each other all that much. And it was obvious Saturday.
2. Kirk Cousins is the best quarterback Michigan State has. I was incredibly impressed with the way the Spartans' starting quarterback played against the Wolverines Saturday, and I don't have the foggiest idea why Mark Dantonio is willing to pull Cousins off the field and insert Keith Nichol.
I've spoken out against two-quarterback systems before, so I'll save some of the rhetoric and simply pose this two-part question: Do the Spartans need Keith Nichol on the field to win? Or is his playing time simply to help him be prepared if Cousins were to get hurt?
I don't buy the idea that Michigan State needs Nichol, nor do I agree with the often-repeated stereotype that Cousins is the passer, Nichol the runner. (Did you see Cousins' 42-yard run in the fourth quarter?) If Dantonio's coming from the other side of the argument, that Nichol is getting valuable preparation in case he's ever needed, that possibility of gaining experience isn't worth giving up snaps that belong to the team's best quarterback when he's healthy and ready to go.
Just like momentum, there's no quantifiable way to measure rhythm, but changing quarterbacks (especially in a close game) has to hurt...who knows what the Spartans' record would be now if Michigan State had pulled a Wisconsin and settled the race in camp instead of letting it linger until Week Five?
On Saturday against Michigan, Kirk Cousins made smart decisions, hit open receivers, completed 71% of his passes, moved the offense, and did absolutely everything right outside of two interceptions. Both picks were wounded ducks because his arm was hit mid-throw, and I lay the overwhelming majority of the blame at the feet of Cousins' linemen for the pair of turnovers.
To me, the Spartans' quarterback derby (if there is one) was perfectly illustrated by this sequence of plays late in the first half:
2nd and 10: Keith Nichol completely misses open receiver.
Between snaps: Kirk Cousins checks in, crowd cheers loudly
3rd and 10: Kirk Cousins immediately completes 15-yard pass to B.J. Cunningham.
That's it: two consecutive plays, two signalcallers, two very different results.
3. And now, playing the part of Javon Ringer will be...Glenn Winston. While any comparison between the former MSU standout tailback and Winston (a sophomore averaging a paltry 3.0 yards per carry) seems to fall somewhere between premature and blasphemous, hear me out.
Against the Wolverines, Winston showed the ability to be the backfield workhorse that Michigan State's offense has traditionally relied on. Winston carried the ball 24 times against Michigan, surpassing his total from the first four games COMBINED (22). The duo of Winston and freshman Larry Caper (13 carries) teamed up to provide a balanced offensive attack and an effective complement to the downfield passing game of Cousins and Nichol.
While Winston's workload still falls well short of some of the legendary performances in this rivalry--Ringer toted the rock 37 times in Ann Arbor last year, and who can forget Chris Perry's 51 carries against MSU in 2003?--he definitely helped wear down the Michigan defensive front as the game rolled along.
Don't forget, the team with the most rushing yards has historically dominated this rivalry, and that stat held true as the Spartans outgained the Wolverines 193-29 on the ground.
Give much of the credit to the sophomore tailback from Detroit and his 24 rushing attempts; after he had only averaged 5.5 carries a game in the season's first month, look for Winston to figure heavily in the Spartans' gameplan for the rest of 2009.
4. Tate Forcier has "it". Whatever that intangible quality is that separates great quarterbacks from good ones, Michigan freshman Tate Forcier was born with a heaping helping of "it". You know exactly what I'm talking about: with 4:30 to go and the Wolverines down 14 points, what were the odds of a team that had only scored 6 points in the first 55 minutes of the game rallying on the road for a pair of late scores? Throw in a rainstorm, a quarterback making his first career start away from Ann Arbor, and then explain to me exactly how Forcier singlehandedly willed his team to tie the game with two seconds left in regulation.
The final touchdown drive was not a thing of beauty, but it was still something to marvel at, if that's possible. With no timeouts, Forcier nearly went down inbounds a handful of times that would have ended the game, bobbled or bounced a few soggy snaps, and by the end, seemed to be so gassed he didn't have a single play left in him. But the great ones always make that last play, and I wasn't surprised at all when the freshman bought enough time to find Roy Roundtree in the end zone for the game-tying score.
If the Wolverines had pulled out the win in overtime, "The Drive" might have a permanent place in Maize and Blue lore. As it is, Forcier's latest heroics (albeit in a losing effort) combine with the freshman's game-winning drives against Notre Dame and Indiana to show what Michigan fans have to look forward to for the next few years.
5. Michigan State suffered through a familiar script, but managed to (finally) write a different ending. The Spartans have had chances to make plays in close games already this season (see "Central Michigan onside kick" or "decision-making on final drive against Notre Dame" as examples 1A and 1B), but have managed to consistently snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Against Michigan, some of the Spartans' same traits that have victimized them throughout 2009 once again reared their ugly heads.
Stupid penalties? Check. Michigan State was flagged eight times for 95 yards, compared to only one whistle against Michigan.
Failure to hold a late lead? Check. When you have a 14-point lead at home and less than 5 minutes to play, the result shouldn't be an overtime coin flip. Letting Stonum race for a 59-yard touchdown (due to poor pursuit angles and over-running the play) is inexcusable.
Questionable playcalling? Check. The Spartans passed up a 49-yard field goal try that could have put them up three possessions with five minutes to go, digging into the "Jim Tressel vs. USC" playbook for an unsuccessful fourth-down call instead.
The good news for Michigan State is that after all the late miscues, overtime went the Spartans' way, whether due to good luck, better execution, or some combination thereof. Credit Chris L. Rucker and Sparty's worn-down defense for making yet another big play in overtime to intercept Forcier, and when Caper danced into the end zone with the game-winning score, Michigan State had finally snapped its disappointing losing streak (and possibly turned around its season).
There's no such thing as an ugly win, right?
MAYBE BROADCASTING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT
Note: These aren't all from Big Ten games, but sometimes a quote's too good to leave out!
"They rush three, drop nine." -- Chris Fowler (reader submission from @snydermatt)
"He's a guy who had spent so much time in Joe Paterno's doghouse that he had his own dish." -- Mike Patrick
"Effortl...effortly...eff....effortlessly." -- Craig Coshun
"And they are tied up at 7-6." -- announcer on ESPN Sirius radio (reader submission from @lisahorne)
"They need disputable evidence to overturn it." -- Pam Ward (reader submission from @lisahorne)
"Jamie, we're gonna get back to you. Your mic is not working. I liked your report, though." -- Dick Stockton
"He's like the little girl with the curl. When he is good, he is brilliant. When he is bad, he is really bad." -- Mike Patrick (what does that even mean?)
I also got a kick out of the Big Ten Network halftime graphic that said:
3 TD passes - thrown to 7 different receivers
MAYBE COACHING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT
Back to Michigan/Michigan State for a minute...the Wolverines faced a 4th-and-1 at their own 16-yard line in the third quarter. Like any intelligent football team would do, Michigan lined up in punt formation...and promptly ran their punter, Zoltan Mesko, for a three-yard loss.
Are you kidding me?
To be honest, I don't have a problem with RichRod deciding to roll the dice and go for it, even at his own 16-yard line. Put some faith in your offensive line, hand the ball to one of your big running backs, and get a yard. Not the best place on the field to gamble, but this column won't rip on coaches for taking an occasional risk.
However, if the plan is to gamble and try to get a yard, snapping the ball to the punter ten yards behind the line of scrimmage seems slightly counter-productive. Line up and go get the first down...or punt the ball...don't split the difference, out-smart yourself, and hand the ball to your opponent in the red zone.
In fairness to Coach Rodriguez, he said in the postgame press conference that it was Mesko's fault, not his. "He was supposed to kick it- it was a read," Rodriguez told reporters.
It was a WHAT?
Explain to me how any coach anywhere in America has a play that allows for a punter to decide on his own to fake a punt in the shadow of his own goalposts whenever he gets the urge to run.
I knew we paid coaches too much money. The players make the decisions anyway.
Now that you're done pointing fingers, let's just delete that particular "read" right out of the playbook, alright, Mr. Rodriguez?
Maybe coaching is easier than I thought.
MAYBE OFFICIATING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT
Michigan's Junior Hemingway catches pass.
Michigan's Junior Hemingway is swarmed by three Spartan defenders.
Michigan's Junior Hemingway tries unsuccessfully to wriggle free and escape the tackle.
Michigan's Junior Hemingway is finally knocked to the ground by MSU safety Roderick Jenrette.
In most football games, this is considered a tackle.
And the brilliant officials in East Lansing promptly flagged Jenrette for a 15-yard penalty on a "late" hit.
Um, by definition, doesn't the word "late" mean the play was over?
I miss the good old days when football players were allowed to tackle the guy with the ball.
Maybe officiating is easier than I thought.
(In case you wondered, Michigan fumbled on the very next play and Michigan State recovered. What do they say on the playground? "Ball don't lie?")
THANK GOODNESS FOR MY DVR
What a play by Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks to get his foot down in the end zone in Minneapolis! Excellent awareness from the Badgers' tight end.
Brilliant one-handed catch by Indiana's Tandon Doss against the Buckeyes - how did he snag that?
Penn State's punter, Jeremy Boone, boomed a monster 66-yard punt that died inside the Illini 5-yard line with no return. That's about as good as it gets. Well, until the second quarter, when he had a punt downed at the 1-yard line! Special teams player of the week, anyone?
Purdue's Keith Smith also made a great touchdown catch in the back of the end zone, having the presence of mind to get his foot down inbounds. Wonderful play by the Boilers' go-to guy in a losing cause.
Ohio State running back Brandon Saine caught a fourth-quarter floating pass from Terrelle Pryor while falling on his back. Still not sure how.
MAYBE HOLDING ONTO THE FOOTBALL IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT
This segment isn't a normal feature of "Carrying On", but how else do I describe Purdue's performance against Northwestern? The Boilermakers squandered a 21-3 lead by committing a half dozen turnovers in a 27-21 loss. The most remarkable sequence, late in the first half, is something I've honestly never seen before. Ever.
Let me set the stage: the Boilermakers were up 18 points with the ball and less than 2:30 to go before intermission.
Purdue throws interception.
Northwestern drive and touchdown. (score: Purdue 21-10)
Purdue fumbles ensuing kickoff, recovered by Wildcats.
Northwestern drive and field goal. (score: Purdue 21-13)
Purdue fumbles on first snap, recovered by Wildcats.
Northwestern drive and field goal. (score: Purdue 21-16)
Purdue fumbles ensuing kickoff, recovered by Wildcats
Fumble overturned on video review.
Purdue kneels the ball and heads to locker room for halftime.
Before the video review overturned the final fumble, Purdue had committed four turnovers in five touches of the football. That's barely two minutes of game time. Mind-boggling.
Or as I wrote on Bleacher Report, "I'm tempted to call the ugly execution a pee wee football performance, but that would be an insult to grade-schoolers everywhere."
Maybe holding onto the football is easier than I thought.
This article is also featured on FirstandBigTen.com, a Bleacher Report blog dedicated to Big Ten football. Show off your football genius by playing Ten by Ten on FBT!
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