50 defining moments from the 2021 Michigan State football season: No. 13

Michigan wide receiver Cornelius Johnson (6) can't make a catch against Michigan State cornerback Ronald Williams (9) during the second half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.
Michigan wide receiver Cornelius Johnson (6) can't make a catch against Michigan State cornerback Ronald Williams (9) during the second half at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. /

We have crossed the two-week mark until the season starts for Michigan State football. Today, I look at another crucial fourth down, this time defensively.

Welcome back to my 50-article series counting down the days until Michigan State football. Today marks the 38th article in the series and moment No. 13. There is a lot of suspicion of bad luck around the number 13, and Cade McNamara and the Michigan offense seemed to have that bad luck strike in the form of the Spartan defense.

For those of you who missed yesterday’s article, please click here. If you would like to look at previous articles of this series, feel free to scroll through my writing profile.

No. 13: Fourth-down stop vs. Cade McNamara, Michigan

Why No. 13?

This play came at a crucial time for the Spartans. After Kenneth Walker III powered the Spartan offense to their first lead since the second quarter, there was still time for Michigan to mount a comeback.

Much like they had all day, the Wolverines started driving down the field, cutting down the yards to the end zone at a methodical rate. After a second down McNamara pass to East Lansing native Andrel Anthony left Michigan with a third-and-3, things looked bleak for the Spartans. On third down, Cade McNamara overthrew a go-ahead touchdown pass, leading to this moment.

On the snap, McNamara takes the snap and instantly looks to his left. After barely a step drop back, McNamara lets the ball fly. The ball, intended for Cornelius Johnson, is a bit in front of the receiver. Additionally, Angelo Grose and Ronald Williams are draped against Johnson, slowing him down a tad and leading to the ball falling to the ground harmlessly.

This play was, to say the least, controversial. Ronald Williams starts the play lined up against Johnson and Grose over Mike Sainristil. Sainristil runs out to the flat while Johnson runs a slant, with the intention being for the two defenders (Williams and Grose) to collide with each other or to force a holding penalty. If neither of those work, the two routes hypothetically should each create some separation due to their close proximity. This mostly plays out, but Johnson’s slant leads him into a collision with Grose as the ball is already in the air. This does not appear to be planned by Grose, as he was chasing after Sainristil after the receiver broke right when the ball was snapped. Johnson gets a glancing blow from Grose as the ball gets closer, and Williams drapes himself over Johnson, trying to get a hand free to bat the ball down.

If you ask any Wolverine follower, this was a blatant display of pass interference. This was one of the calls that the Big Ten officials blew, and allegedly later admitted to Harbaugh, with no evidence of this either for or against. The only word on this admittance is from the Wolverines’ head coach, and his side of the story may be a tad bit biased.

Meanwhile, any Michigan State fan will claim that this was incidental contact and did not impede Johnson in his route to the ball, and Williams contacted Johnson as the ball would have arrived. They can claim this was a bad route by Johnson, as he had separation and should have been a half step over. Additionally, this could be argued as offensive pass interference, with the two routes designed to be the football version of basketball’s moving pick.

Personally, I believe that this was a fair no-call. Johnson did have his progress impeded by Grose and Williams, but the play design could have led to an OPI. I do not believe that this case warranted a flag for offensive pass interference. Meanwhile, on the defensive aspect, I would be upset but have understood a flag for DPI. In addition to the glancing contact from Grose with the ball in the air or about to fly, I believe that Williams’s arm grabbed Johnson a split second too soon. I also say this after watching the play 20-30 times from a television camera, as opposed to having to call this real-time with only my eyes as references.

This no-call was a very similar concept (with a different ending) to then-Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow’s game-winning touchdown against Alabama a few years back. On the play, a rub route freed up Renfrow for the short yardage touchdown. In the days following, Alabama fans wanted offensive pass interference, and Clemson wanted a no-call or defensive pass interference. The winners get to live with the victory, regardless of the calls.

Grose and Williams both deserve credit here. Without their training and abilities, they would not have been in position to even impact the play. This play is likely the shortest in terms of time taken on my entire list. Most of this play is just athleticism on display. The two defensive backs were able to prevent Johnson from catching the ball and not getting flagged, which is all they needed to do on this play.

The Spartans would get the ball back, but a quick three-and-out would let the Wolverine offense take the field one last time, and a moment we all know would take place. Enough about that, where is the justification for this play?

This play was impactful and changed the outcome of the game, no doubt. This being said, it was not the final Wolverine possession of the game. Additionally, the aspect of penalty vs. no penalty is controversial and can lower the view of the play’s result. The chance for this play to occur also only came after a few moments in this game took place. Finally, the “wow” factor is not necessarily there on this play. At the end of the day, it is an incomplete pass with no breakup, just some good positioning by players and maybe a tad bit early of a throw by McNamara.

Statistically, there really is not much to write about. Neither Grose nor Williams got credited with a pass breakup on this play, nor was Johnson credited with a drop, as the ball never hit his hands. This was the second of three consecutive Wolverine drives that ended in a turnover, either by downs or defensive takeaways.

Tomorrow, the top dozen plays begin with Jalen Nailor clutching up for the Spartans as he did all year.

3 burning questions for MSU football's 2022 season. dark. Next