East Lansing — Michigan State kept pounding forward and Michigan kept going backward, and that’s where the rivalry sits right now, only one tough guy on this block. You can’t say this was an eye-opener because we’ve seen it before, although not this punishing.
The Spartans splattered the Wolverines 29-6 Saturday and if that counts as bullying, they might as well keep it up until someone stops them. Afterward, Brady Hoke didn’t say much and Mark Dantonio didn’t need to say anything. The numbers said it all.
The Wolverines were embarrassed, overwhelmed at times, and Devin Gardner had no chance. The Spartans sacked him seven times, and when you add up all the negative plays, the Wolverines finished with an astounding minus-48 yards rushing.
Is Michigan State’s defense that stiflingly good, or is Michigan’s blocking that bad? The answer: Yes. The Wolverines vowed not to get shoved around again — offensive tackle Taylor Lewan had brought up the bully angle — and then went out and got shoved around even more.
“I think we did it worse today,” Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen said. “Two years ago was nothing. It was a lot worse, and I think they felt it. … Call us what you want, call us little brother, big brother. But when it’s on the field, we show who’s the big brother and who’s the little brother.”
That’s hitting where it hurts, and the Wolverines felt it. Gardner couldn’t even finish the game because, according to Hoke, he was “beat up.” It essentially was over moments after it looked like it was about to get interesting. Raymon Taylor intercepted a Connor Cook pass and Michigan had the ball at Michigan State’s 41 late in the third quarter, trailing 16-6.
Then Gardner was dropped for a 5-yard loss, sacked by Allen for a 9-yard loss and sacked by Allen and Ed Davis for a 7-yard loss. Just like that, it was fourth-and-31, which actually looked manageable compared to the fourth-and-48 the Wolverines faced earlier in the game.
Al Borges’ game plan was oddly scattered and he needs to reevaluate what he’s doing, especially with that young and woeful offensive line. But frankly, Pat Narduzzi’s blitz-happy defense would have shattered it regardless. Michigan State’s defense is No. 1 in the nation, and people can pick apart the lack of quality competition all they want. But this group is loaded, breathtaking to watch, even for the Spartans’ offensive guys.
“I just watch on the Jumbotron, and pretty much the only thing I saw was them in the backfield the whole game,” Cook said. “It was almost like Devin couldn’t even breathe.”
The pattern is growing, and impossible to explain away. With five victories in the past six meetings, Michigan State is the type of grinding, rumbling team Michigan is trying to become. Hoke has a bigger issue than he probably expected, and deep into his third season, the Wolverines look no tougher in the trenches.
Since Dantonio took over in 2007, the Wolverines’ point total in this game has dropped every year, from 28 to 21 to 20 to 17 to 14 to 12 to six, and they haven’t scored a touchdown the past two meetings. Dantonio knows the rivalry, relishes the rivalry and finds players who want to line up and slug it out. Michigan won 12-10 last season, a brief respite. You can’t control your own state if you can’t control your own lines, and Michigan State is in control right now.
“We’re not trying to go out and bully anybody,” Dantonio said, his postgame mood respectfully reserved. “They got big guys too. But we’re gonna play hard, we’re gonna play like I’ve been taught throughout my coaching career. We’re gonna play good defense, we’re gonna try to run the ball and we’re gonna try to physically win.”
That’s what they did, all day long, up and down the wet field on a drizzly day. The Spartans have so many defensive stars, it’s hard to pick one, although Allen, Shilique Calhoun (2.5 more sacks) and Max Bullough are great places to start.
Now the Spartans can aim even higher, in command of the Legends Division at 8-1 (5-0 Big Ten). With their remaining schedule — bye, at Nebraska, at Northwestern, home to Minnesota — they’re a heavy favorite to reach the championship game, where they’d likely face Ohio State.
This was one of Dantonio’s finest moments, and as the final seconds ticked away, he pointed toward the celebrating student section, and the roar grew. You’d think by now, with Michigan’s struggles, everyone would be done with the big brother-little brother talk. Clearly, it has motivated the Spartans since Mike Hart stirred it back in 2007, and they’re not letting it go until someone takes it from them.
If Michigan wants a return to old brotherhoods, it has to figure some things out, and it isn’t as simple as better play-calling from Borges and Greg Mattison. As awful as the offense looked, especially after a bye, there weren’t many answers to Michigan State’s defensive ferocity.
The interior of Michigan’s offensive line is young, but it shouldn’t be that weak. Fitz Toussaint had nowhere to run and wasn’t effective blocking. If you can’t run the ball and get sacked every other time you drop back, the options dwindle.
Hoke looked a bit shell-shocked afterward, and defended Borges’ game plan. That’s what a program leader is supposed to do, maintain calm even though repair work is obvious. I asked Hoke if the recent streak indicated a widening gap between the programs.
“I don’t think there is a gap,” he said. “I think they played awfully well, executed awfully well, and I don’t think we did.”
Whatever it is — a gap, a blip, a resounding shift — it’s still there. It was thoroughly evident on this day, in Gardner’s pained expression and in the numbing numbers. And especially in the Spartans’ grim-faced determination, as if they knew exactly what they could do, and the Wolverines had no idea what was coming.