MSU-UM football rivalry: 10 memorable moments

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Brandon Sowards begins the celebration after teammate Jalen Watts-Jackson ran a fumbled punt back for a touchdown to beat Michigan in 2015.

All-time college greats. Future NFL stars. Unforgettable plays. Frantic finishes. A never-ending debate over who is better.

The Michigan-Michigan State series has had it all through the years, and Saturday’s 111th meeting will add to the lore of the historic rivalry.

But before the Wolverines and Spartans settle this season’s feud, let’s take a look back at 10 of the most memorable moments over the years:

1990 — MSU 28, (at) No. 1 UM 27

Dubbed the “No. One vs. No One” matchup, Elvis Grbac capped a 13-play, 70-yard scoring drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Alexander to pull the Wolverines within one with six seconds left. But rather than kick the extra point, first-year Michigan coach Gary Moeller elected to go for two and the win.

On the two-point conversion attempt, Grbac targeted an open Desmond Howard, who was isolated on the left side of the field and ran a slant. Howard got tangled with Michigan State’s Eddie Brown and was tripped up as the pass reached him. Despite the contact, Howard appeared to have the ball in his grasp before it rolled away as he fell into the end zone. The pass was ruled incomplete and no interference was called.

"I felt as if I caught the ball," Howard said after the game. "As I looked up after the ball popped out, the first thing I saw was the officials' face and I was looking for him to raise his arms for a touchdown, but he never did.

"After the play I was looking for a flag but there wasn't one and I couldn't believe it."

Michigan had one last-gasp chance after recovering the onside kick, but Grbac’s Hail Mary attempt was tipped and intercepted to end it.

1997 — No. 5 UM 23, (at) No. 15 MSU 7

The Wolverines entered the top-15 matchup with one of the stingiest defenses in the nation and showed why.

After Michigan State used some trickery to score on a 22-yard yard touchdown catch by Sedrick Irvin off a fake field goal in the first quarter, Michigan clamped down and pitched a shutout the rest of the way.

The Wolverines tied a single-game program record with six interceptions on the day — five coming off quarterback Todd Schultz — but none were as highlight-reel worthy as Charles Woodson’s third-quarter pick.

Trailing 13-7 and facing a third-and-9 at the Michigan State 20, Schultz rolled out to right away from pressure and threw a pass along the sideline where Woodson made a leaping, one-handed grab — and somehow managed to get his left foot down inbounds.

It was one of two interceptions for Woodson in a game that aided his Heisman Trophy campaign and kept Michigan on track for a share of the national championship.

More: ‘Divine’ season still unforgettable to ’97 Wolverines

1999 — (At) No. 11 MSU 34, No. 3 UM 31

The second top-15 showdown in three seasons turned out to be another record day — this time for two Spartans as Michigan State quarterback Bill Burke threw for a single-game program-record 400 yards and receiver Plaxico Burress set a new mark with 255 receiving yards.

After a tight first half, Michigan State used a pair of third-down touchdown passes from Burke to Gari Scott and Burress and an interception from Michigan backup quarterback Drew Henson — who coach Lloyd Carr was rotating in with starter Tom Brady — to open up a 27-10 cushion in the third quarter.

Brady led a late charge by orchestrating three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter — the last two on scoring strikes to David Terrell and Aaron Shea — to pull Michigan within three with 2:44 remaining. But after Michigan State recovered the onside kick, the Spartans were able to run out the clock after Burke hit Burress for a toe-dragging catch along the sideline to convert a third-and-9 in what proved to be a fitting finish.

The win gave Michigan State its first 6-0 start since its 1966 national-championship season and coach Nick Saban his first — and final — head-to-head victory over Carr since the duo’s rivalry debut in 1995.

Both single-game totals for Burke and Burress have since been bested — by Brian Lewerke (445 passing yards vs. Northwestern in 2017) and Charles Rogers (270 receiving yards vs. Fresno State in 2001) — but still rank second in program history.

2001 — (At) MSU 26, No. 6 UM 24

The Spartans dashed the Wolverines’ hopes of a national championship when Jeff Smoker’s floated pass found T.J. Duckett in the middle of the end zone on the game’s final play — and stirred up a whole bunch of clock controversy.

On the previous play, Michigan State faced a second-and-goal inside the 5-yard line with 17 seconds left. Smoker rolled out to his right and attempted to scramble for the score before being taken down at the 2 with 12 ticks remaining. The Spartans were able to get lined up and spike the ball with one second left to give themselves one last shot to pull off the upset.

TV broadcaster Gary Danielson and Michigan radio announcer Frank Beckmann speculated Michigan State benefited from its home-field advantage and timekeeper Bob Stehlin, who was known as “Spartan Bob,” stopped the clock before the ball was grounded. Beckmann called the clock stoppage “criminal” while Danielson said on air, “Nice to have that home clock right there.”

The Big Ten reviewed the video and concluded that Stehlin didn’t make a mistake. The next season, the Big Ten changed its timekeeping policy and required a conference-appointed official to manage the clock instead of an individual appointed by the home team.

However, the meeting might not be remembered as “clockgate” if Michigan State wasn’t incorrectly charged with its last timeout during its game-winning drive on the same play Michigan was flagged for having 12 men on the field.

More: Smoker: Still fun to needle UM over 'Clockgate'

2003 — No. 11 UM 27, (at) No. 9 MSU 20

There are times when a team rides a player to victory down the stretch. And then there are incredible workhorse performances from start to finish like Michigan running back Chris Perry’s, who posted one of the most astounding stat lines in program history.

Perry racked up 219 yards rushing and a touchdown on a whopping 51 carries, which shattered the program’s single-game rushing attempts mark of 42 shared by Ron Johnson (1967) and Anthony Thomas (1999).

Behind the strength three touchdown passes from John Navarre and Perry’s relentless efforts, the Wolverines held a 27-10 advantage in the fourth quarter. The Spartans closed the gap with a field goal and 65-yard fumble return for a score to make it a one-possession game with six minutes to go but came up short when quarterback Jeff Smoker’s desperation heave from midfield was intercepted in the final seconds.

What made Perry’s number even more impressive is his 236 total yards of offense nearly single-handedly matched Michigan State’s entire team (290 yards).

"It's the kind of a game you ask for (as a running back)," Perry said postgame. "I told the coaches I could carry the ball a lot. Fifty carries feels great when you win. I'm not sure what it would be like if you lose.

"I think (former Michigan) coach (Bo) Schembechler would be happy that game. He's probably smiling somewhere right now."

2004 — (At) No. 12 UM 45, MSU 37 (3OT)

The outcome appeared bleak and the masses started streaming to the Michigan Stadium exits when the Wolverines trailed 27-10 with under nine minutes left in regulation.

That was until Braylon Edwards put on a show and helped Michigan wipe out a 17-point deficit in less than six minutes to force overtime. The senior receiver made leaping touchdown grabs of 37 and 22 yards over Michigan State defender Jaren Hayes within a three-minute span, capping a pair of quick-strike scoring drives that went at least 60 yards in two plays.

After trading field goals in the first extra session and scores in the second, Edwards completed the epic comeback in the third overtime by taking a pass a from quarterback Chad Henne on third down and slicing through the Michigan State defense en route to a 24-yard score.

Edwards finished with 11 catches for 189 yards and broke Anthony Carter’s program record for career receiving yards in the process — a mark that still stands today.

"It was one of the greatest games I've ever been in," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said at the time. “Braylon Edwards made plays that I don't think anybody else can make.”

More: 10 years ago, Michigan's comeback for the ages

2007 — No. 15 UM 28, (at) MSU 24

The Wolverines needed a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Chad Henne to overcome a 10-point deficit and reel off their sixth straight win the series.

But this game isn’t remembered for any hard hits on the field. Rather, it’s the “little brother” jab by Michigan running back Mike Hart that has become a moniker in the rivalry.

“I was just laughing,” said Hart, who went 4-0 against Michigan State during his career, when asked if he ever doubted the Wolverines would storm back.

“I thought it was funny. They got excited. It’s good. Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you’re playing basketball and you let him get the lead. Then you come back and take it from him.”

While the Michigan faithful might have gotten a kick out of Hart’s remark, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio wasn’t amused.

“Let’s just remember, pride comes before the fall,” Dantonio said at the time. “They want to mock us, I’m telling them, it’s not over. They want to print that crap all over their locker room, it’s not over and it’ll never be over here. It’s just starting.

“I’m very proud of our football team, and I’m very proud of the way our football team handled themselves after the game as well. You don’t have to disrespect people. If they want to make a mockery of it, so be it. Their time will come.”

The Spartans went on to win the next four meetings and have emerged victorious in eight of the last 10 encounters.

More: UM’s Mike Hart regrets ‘little brother’ jab at MSU

2012 — (At) No. 23 UM 12, MSU 10

One of Michigan’s two wins this decade came courtesy of Brendan Gibbons’ leg — and it was quite the roller coaster of emotion.

After a fake punt set up a go-ahead field goal for Michigan State in the fourth quarter, Denard Robinson helped put the Wolverines into position for a last-gasp kick by completing a clutch 20-yard pass to Drew Dileo with nine seconds left.

Robinson then headed to the sidelines, where he opted to take a knee and pray instead of watching Gibbons bang through a 38-yard field goal — his third of the contest — to snap Michigan’s four-game skid in the series and its worst losing streak against the Spartans since 1962.

As if beating Michigan State — without scoring a touchdown nonetheless — wasn’t sweet enough, the victory gave Michigan its 900th win as a program and made it the first college football team to reach that mark.

2014 — (At) No. 8 MSU 35, UM 11

Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden raised some eyebrows and ruffled plenty of feathers when he brought a tent stake onto the field and drove it into the Spartan Stadium turf shortly before kickoff.

Michigan State viewed the act as a blatant sign of disrespect. So, after the Wolverines scored their lone touchdown to make it 28-11 with 3:40 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Spartans marched down the field and sent their own message.

With the ball at the Michigan 5-yard line and 35 seconds left, Michigan State opted to run up the score instead of running out the clock by handing it off to Jeremy Langford, who provided the final margin with a rushing score.

"It just felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "Throwing the stake down in our backyard out here and coming out there like they're all that…We were not going to cool off of that."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke said at the time he was “aware that something happened but not fully aware” and wasn’t surprised Michigan State went for the late score. The next day, Hoke would also issue a public apology to Dantonio and the Spartans.

Bolden would later say he meant no harm by his actions and it was simply a motivational stunt to fire up his team — one that clearly backfired.

2015 — No. 7 MSU 27, (at) No. 12 UM 23

Michigan was 10 seconds away from handing Michigan State its first loss of the season and coming out on top in the top-15 matchup. All it had to do was simply punt the ball away.

Instead, what unfolded was one of the wildest finishes in the series and most unforgettable phrases — “He has trouble with the snap!” — after punter Blake O’Neill had the ball bounce off his hands.

After mishandling the knee-high snap, O’Neill picked the ball up and attempted to kick it while being swarmed by Michigan State defenders. Instead, it popped loose and went right into the arms of Jalen Watts-Jackson, who returned it 38 yards for a touchdown as time expired and suffered a broken hip as he was tackled into the end zone.

The stunning finish quickly went viral and GIFs were made of the fan reaction inside Michigan Stadium after the Wolverines had led until the final play.

More: Describing the indescribable: Voices behind Big House mayhem

“You go from 10 seconds the guy punting the ball and thinking, ‘OK, this is done,’ then all of a sudden life gets flipped upside down and we come out on the top of it,” said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who would later name the play “Rangers: Mission 4:10.”

“Football is a crazy, crazy game. I can’t really explain it, but we just had a belief. There was a belief in what went down.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins