Edwin Baker busts loose for a 61-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)
Ann Arbor -- If there was any doubt, there isn’t now. There’s a new Green power in town, and that’s power as in pow, as in wow.
Michigan State came thundering and scowling into the Big House Saturday and made the strongest statement in this rivalry in a while. The Spartans are embracing it all right now, the adversity, the challenge, the chance to punish those who once tormented them.
In one pounding performance, Michigan State hammered Michigan, unplugged the electricity from Denard Robinson and signaled that something special is possible for this team. Yes, the Wolverines revealed flaws, but just as poignantly, the Spartans exposed them in a 34-17 victory.
Their coach, Mark Dantonio, is still recovering from a heart attack and a blood clot, and by bonding behind him, the 6-0 Spartans are reinforcing what he preaches. Dantonio coached from the press box and greeted his team on the field beforehand and at halftime. And it’s hard to tell if the Spartans are even more inspired, or if this is who they’re becoming — tough of mind, tough of body.
This was power football and balanced football, and a graphic display of how the rivalry is shifting. Grit versus glitz? A bit simplistic, but that’s how it appeared for long stretches, as Michigan State was more physical on both sides of the ball, and Michigan’s young, weak defense buckled.
By the end, the Wolverines (5-1) were spent, and the showdown of unbeatens became a mismatch. They couldn’t stop Edwin Baker when necessary, they couldn’t shake quarterback Kirk Cousins, they’d had enough.
With 5:56 left in the game, trailing by 17 and facing a fourth-and-9 from his own 30, Rich Rodriguez elected to punt, a lame concession he admitted was a mistake. On this day, Michigan made the big mistakes, including three huge interceptions by Robinson, who finally did something to quell the Heisman hype. The Spartans didn’t completely stop him — he had 301 total yards, 86 rushing — but they battered and rattled him.
Pound Green pound
Frankly, it was an all-around beating. Maybe, as the Wolverines collect more athletes, especially for that shattered defense, their speed will make a difference in this series. Not now, and if Michigan’s season is held together by a Shoelace, Michigan State is bound by a thick rope.
"Pound Green pound," said Baker, who rushed for 147 yards. "We showcased to everyone in the world that we were going to run the ball."They did, and the Wolverines still couldn’t stop them. Baker ran over people, and so did Le’Veon Bell and Larry Caper. On an 8-yard run that made it 31-10, Caper plowed through defenders into the end zone.
The Spartans and their fans spent the fourth quarter relishing it all, and when it was over, the lingering "little brother" talk officially was over too. This was Michigan State’s third straight victory in the rivalry, its longest streak in 43 years, and players admitted the sting of their last loss to Michigan still pushed them.
It was in 2007 when Mike Hart uttered his famous "little brother" quote following Michigan’s 28-24 victory. Now, 1,071 days later, the Wolverines haven’t beaten the Spartans since, and that’s big trouble for Rodriguez, now 0-3 in the rivalry.
Dantonio is grabbing hold and squeezing, although he was gracious after this one. He could afford to be, as the Spartans dominated when it mattered, possessing the ball for 12:30 in the final quarter.
"They asked me outside about the little brother thing, and the only response I have is, maybe someday little brother grows up and competes with big brother and makes it a game every week," Dantonio said. "I felt as a staff (when he arrived four years ago) we were going to be a player in the state. You embrace rivalries — that’s the way I've coached wherever I've been."
There was no hint of acrimony, and in fact, Dantonio had kind words for Rodriguez’s program. I have this funny feeling Dantonio likes the clash of styles, not because it’s easy to beat — Robinson will be dangerous in the meetings ahead — but because it helps the Spartans accentuate who they are.
Robinson came into the game averaging 181 yards rushing, but said he got too excited, reflected in his turnovers and his tentative running. Michigan finished with 162 rushing yards as a team (to Michigan State’s 249) and clearly couldn’t match the Spartans’ stable of power backs.
"We’ve kind of settled into what we’re about, what our identity is," said Cousins, whose composure was a big part of it.
Dantonio called it a "program win" and he was right, and it was written in sweat. All of a sudden, the Spartans have a real shot at a special season, without Ohio State on their schedule, although they swear they’re not looking past the next one, at home against Illinois.
Where do the Wolverines go from here? Hard to pinpoint, but another Big Ten collapse absolutely is not acceptable. More injuries piled up, but even if Robinson isn’t as spectacular as he showed the first five games against lesser competition, I don’t think he'll be this shaky either.
The Spartans got in his face and didn’t allow him a carry longer than 16 yards. The Wolverines came out fast, moved well early, but the first-drive interception was a crusher, and Robinson never fully recovered.
Michigan State didn’t let him. This was an old-school pounding, and the message is unambiguous now — there’s a tough new sibling in town.