The theme of the 2020 college football season has been that we should not assume anything. We shouldn't assume games will be played, nor should we assume the games that are played will feature all the usual faces. And above all else, we should not assume that previous results or performances mean anything week to week.
Michigan State's 27-24 upset win over No. 13 Michigan on Saturday was just the latest reminder. Last week, we saw Michigan look impressive in a 49-24 road win over a ranked Minnesota team while Michigan State was busy turning the ball over seven times en route to becoming the first Big Ten team to lose a game to Rutgers since 2017. As a result, most people expected Michigan to cruise to an easy win on Saturday. The point spread closed with Michigan as a three-touchdown favorite, per William Hill Sportsbook, and that was after it shrunk a few points during the week.
None of that mattered on Saturday, though. The Spartans beat the Wolverines, and it wasn't the result of a fluke play or numerous UM turnovers. Michigan State put together a four-play, 71-yard touchdown drive on its second possession of the game to take a 7-0 lead, and it never trailed after that.
Michigan State QB Rocky Lombardi finished with 323 yards passing and three touchdowns to lead the Spartans offense. Ricky White proved to be his favorite target, pulling in eight receptions for an incredible 196 yards (24.5 yards per reception) with a touchdown.
Michigan State strikes first: Rocky Lombardi hit Ricky White for a Spartans TD— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) October 31, 2020
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Here are three takeaways from the latest upset in college football this season.
1. Michigan State was never as bad as the Rutgers loss made it seem: Don't get me wrong, losing to Rutgers is never good, no matter what the box score or context might say. But the 38-27 loss last week was a bit misleading in that it made it look as though Michigan State wasn't its worst enemy in that defeat. The Spartans turned the ball over seven times and put their defense in bad positions constantly. When you looked at the numbers, though, you saw that the Spartans defense played well all things considered, and that showed up against Michigan.
The Spartans held the Wolverines to 452 yards on the day, but 93 of those yards came in the final minutes as Michigan State was sitting back with a two-score lead, happy to let Michigan go 5 yards at a time during an 18-play drive that melted 4.5 precious minutes off the clock. Aside from that drive, the Spartans defense allowed only 359 yards on the day.
Offensively, the Spartans weren't what you'd consider efficient. They averaged only 3.3 yards per carry on the ground, and while Lombardi completed only 17 of 32, that was a reflection of the game plan, not Lombardi's overall accuracy. MSU attacked UM's defense defense vertically in the passing game, and it worked. It was a much more aggressive approach than what we saw from the Spartans last week against Rutgers when Lombardi averaged 7.4 yards per attempt. Saturday, he averaged 10.1.
I don't think this win means that the Spartans will move on to compete in the Big Ten East -- though, again, we shouldn't assume anything -- but it did prove that things weren't nearly as bad as they seemed last week.
2. Michigan's secondary will be a problem all season: I mentioned Michigan State's aggressiveness in the passing game, and it wasn't an accident. The Spartans saw something of which they felt they could take advantage, and they kept going back to the well. While Michigan's defense performed solidly overall against Minnesota last week, its secondary was vulnerable to the big play. The Golden Gophers, missing half their offensive line, were still able to pick up two passing plays of at least 30 yards last week.
On Saturday, Michigan State had five. The Spartans had completions of 30, 31, 40, 50 and 53 yards against Michigan. Ricky White was on the receiving end of all of them except for the 53-yard connection (that was Jalen Nailor). If Michigan State can do that against Michigan's defense, what will Ohio State manage to do?
Ricky White Highlights vs. Michigan Wolverines | 2020 Regular Season Week 9 9, 10/31/2020 pic.twitter.com/ZC4sqstAzu— Michigan St. on BTN (@MichiganStOnBTN) October 31, 2020
Also, while the secondary will take the heat for the performance, Michigan's front seven has to share in the blame. Last week, the Wolverines defense had nine tackles for loss and five sacks against a makeshift Minnesota offensive line. Against Michigan State, they managed only two tackles for loss and didn't sack Lombardi a single time. It's a lot easier to cover receivers when your front seven gets pressure on the QB, and Michigan didn't get much on Lombardi.
3. The Big Ten is a total crapshoot: I could live to regret this sentence, but as of publication, the conference seems to be Ohio State and 13 other teams that could be anything. And given how everything else has gone, Penn State might prove Ohio State's no different on Saturday night. But Michigan looked impressive last week and like it could be a contender in the Big Ten East. It's hard to imagine that's still the case after this performance. In the West, Wisconsin looked like a juggernaut against Illinois but has now had to cancel a game due to a COVID-19 outbreak and will be down to its third-string QB at a minimum if it can return next week. Minnesota, which won 11 games last year, is 0-2. Penn State might be 0-2 by the end of the night.
Who knows what happens from here?!