Paul Bunyan woke up this morning somewhat confused. For the majority of the last four decades, Bunyan resided in Ann Arbor, while keeping a vacation home in East Lansing.
He hasn’t spent more than a year consecutively in East Lansing since Lyndon B. Johnson was the president and the first Star Trek episode aired on television.
But following Michigan State’s 26-20 overtime win over hated rival Michigan on Saturday, Bunyan will be extending his stay for at least another year.
Michigan played poorly for 55 minutes before finally showing some resolve with two touchdown drives in the final five minutes to force overtime.
But it wasn’t enough, as freshman quarterback Tate Forcier threw an interception in the end zone in the first overtime and State ran for a touchdown on the third play of its overtime possession.
So now that Michigan has tasted defeat for the first time this season, where does it go from here?
I think it all starts with getting its confidence back. It didn’t play well in last week’s win over Indiana, and continued the poor play for three-and-a-half quarters this week.
Remember, this is still a very young team. Nobody expected Michigan to win the Big Ten this year. The 4-0 start raised some expectations and probably gave Michigan fans a false sense of reality.
I wrote following last week’s game that expectations should be tempered a bit because the meat of the schedule began with Michigan State.
Well, in its first road test of the season, Michigan was outplayed for 55 minutes and still had a chance to win the game. This young team has shown it can fight, having already had two come-from-behind wins and almost another on Saturday. But when it comes down to it, there’s still a lot of room to grow.
“Our team doesn’t give up,” Forcier said following the game. “We’re going to keep fighting until the game is over. It showed. We can’t win all of them, but our guys kept fighting.”
As much as fans of other teams like to rip on Forcier, there’s no denying that he’s a gamer. He’s not perfect. He hasn’t learned how to throw it away instead of taking a sack or an intentional grounding penalty and he tries to force passes that shouldn’t be thrown. He is just a freshman after all.
Despite the mistakes, he has now led three game-winning or game-tying drives in five games. When it comes down to the final minutes, the freshman finds a way to get it done, and he’s only going to get better.
Forcier cannot be blamed for this loss. Several dropped passes in the first half either killed drives or kept drives from getting started.
For the game, Michigan’s average gain on first down was just a yard-and-a-half (not counting the final two touchdown drives, which were run in more of a two-minute offense).
Second downs weren’t much better, as Michigan picked up just 29 yards on 13 second-down plays, forcing long third downs.
When you can’t pick up yards on first down, you put yourself in long down situations, and Michigan faced an average of nine yards per third down attempt.
Only three of 11 third downs were converted prior to the two touchdown drives at the end of the game.
Some of that was a result of poor execution, but give Michigan State’s defense credit.
In the first half, Michigan consistently tried to run between the tackles on first down. It seemed intent on trying to establish the run game even when it wasn’t working.
Once Michigan State stopped the run on first down, it was able to bring the pressure on Forcier on second and third down.
Michigan needs to work on establishing some offensive consistency. I’m not going to blame the coaching staff, because I know that Rodriguez is a great offensive coach as an innovator of the spread option offense.
The wheels aren't falling off; Michigan fans just need to realize that the training wheels are barely removed.
If last season was the big wheel, this season is the tricycle. It's going to take time before Michigan is able to rev up the engines against the good teams.
Running backs Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown had been great in the first four games, but Michigan State seemed set on stopping them on first down and making Forcier beat them through the air.
And that's where Michigan has to improve. When things aren't going well, it has to be able to adjust and find another way to get it done.
Maybe it means changing up tendencies on first down. Maybe it’s a matter of opening up bigger holes to run through. Maybe it is merely a matter of catching passes.
Regardless, the offense needs to be able to get some consistency to keep the defense off the field for large chunks of the game.
I’m making no excuses and the coaches and players won’t either, but the fact of the matter is it’s hard to get things going on offense with a freshman quarterback, freshmen and sophomores at receiver and tight end, and a banged up offensive line.
College football is a game in which individual freshmen can shine, but a team full of underclassmen is not a recipe for success.
Those realities can only be fixed with time, which means the second half of the season could be rough.
Remember that most reasonable fans and pundits predicted Michigan to win six to eight games this season. With four already under its belt, six certainly seems achievable and seven likely. But fans need to realize that this isn't yet a team that will win every game.
While a loss to rival Michigan State hurts, the season isn't over.
Michigan needs to take things one game at a time, and that begins with Iowa next Saturday.
Iowa features a tough defense and a capable offense to go along with a night game in a stadium that doesn’t prove friendly to visiting teams.
Michigan didn’t seem to meet Michigan State’s energy level this weekend, but I don’t think it will have a problem getting up for a nationally televised night game next weekend.
I expect the coaching staff to work up a game plan to allow Michigan’s offense to function better against another tough defense.
While there is no mythical character to battle for, Michigan will have a chance to pull off the biggest upset so far of Rodriguez’s Michigan career and gain back some national respect.
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