Ann Arbor — When Michigan’s final desperation heave hit the turf at Michigan Stadium on Saturday night, it was hard to describe the celebration for the players from Michigan State.
The Spartans had just finished off the upset of No. 7 Michigan, beating the Wolverines, 14-10, to win for the eighth time in the last 10 meetings and improve Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio’s record in the rivalry to 8-3. The Paul Bunyan Trophy was headed back to East Lansing after one year away.
Kenny Willekes, Chris Frey, Joe Bachie and Brian Lewerke discuss win over Wolverines. Matt Charboneau
“I started to go celebrate and then I was like, ‘I need to go get Paul,’” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “He’s back home where he’s supposed to be and we’re excited to have him back. I gave him and a kiss and said ‘Welcome back.’”
Linebacker Joe Bachie, who had 10 tackles and an interception, knocked the final pass to the ground.
“I said, ‘Go up and get it,’” Bachie recalled. “I’m glad I was in front of that pile and glad I could get my hands on it. When it hit the ground and the clock was at zero, it’s a feeling I can’t explain.”
It was exuberance, to be sure, but there was some relief, too. For a program that inexplicably plummeted to 3-9 last season, just months after reaching the College Football Playoff and following it up with an offseason of turmoil, the win was bigger than just one game.
No, the dominance in the rivalry had not been shifted. Michigan State, a double-digit underdog, isn’t going anywhere.
Spartans coach addresses media after 14-10 win over Wolverines at Michigan Stadium. Matt Charboneau
“I tell every player that comes here to dream big,” Dantonio said. “And I’m no different. I’m gonna dream big. We’ve been to the playoffs. We’ve won three Big Ten championships and we beat our rival. We’ve fallen down in other areas, but we’re gonna try and always rise up.”
The Spartans (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) outlasted the Wolverines in a second-half downpour that made just hanging on to the ball difficult. Michigan State didn’t dominate offensively, gaining just 252 yards of total offense and throwing for only 94.
But they held on to the ball, something Michigan couldn’t do. It was what Dantonio called smart, not conservative.
“We didn’t gamble much, we didn’t go downfield with the ball at all in the second half,” Dantonio said. “Everything was intermediate and we tried to run the ball and take the clock as much as we could and make them beat us on defense.”
Michigan (4-1, 1-1) couldn’t do that, primarily because it couldn’t hang on to the ball. The Wolverines lost two fumbles — the first leading to Michigan State’s first touchdown — while quarterback John O’Korn, in his first start this season, was intercepted three times.
Michigan coach talks about how turnovers derailed team in 14-10 defeat to Michigan State. Angelique S. Chengelis
“Too many turnovers,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “When we got momentum going, we turned it over. Can’t expect to win when you turn it over five times.
“Yeah, you can criticize (not running the ball more). We were trying to run the ball. We were trying to piece drives together. We needed to score points, and we needed to put drives together, and that’s what we were trying to do.”
The Spartans wouldn’t let it happen, however, adding four sacks and putting consistent pressure on O’Korn.
After allowing Michigan to march down the field on the opening drive and take a 3-0 lead on a 30-yard field goal from Quinn Nordin, Michigan State started to take advantage of the Michigan mistakes. The first came in the opening quarter with Michigan carrying the momentum after the Nordin field goal.
That’s when Bachie stripped the ball from Michigan running back Ty Isaac and it was recovered at the Michigan 46 by Frey. That led to MSU quarterback Brian Lewerke putting the Spartans ahead 7-3 on a 14-yard with 2:59 left in the first quarter.
Michigan coach commends defense for keeping team in game despite numerous turnovers. Angelique S. Chengelis
After forcing a pair of Michigan punts, Michigan State started to get the offense rolling as Darrell Stewart made an impressive 30-yard grab to get the Spartans deep into Wolverines territory. They then cashed in on a perfectly executed screen pass as Madre London took a throw from Lewerke and went 16 yards for the touchdown to put Michigan State up 14-3 with 8:07 left in the second quarter.
Michigan State thwarted a Michigan opportunity late in the first half after tight end Sean McKeon caught a 36-yard pass then had the ball knocked free by Michigan State’s Justin Layne. David Dowell recovered the ball to close out the half.
Michigan found the early momentum in the second half, controlling field position and then finding the end zone on a 1-yard run from Khalid Hill to cut the Michigan State lead to 14-10 with 8:09 left in the third quarter.
But that’s when the rain came and so did the turnovers.
While Michigan State was playing smart and punting the ball, Michigan had three straight turnovers — interceptions by Bachie and two more by Dowell.
The Spartans’ only first down of the second half came on the final drive when Lewerke fumbled the snap but still scrambled for the first down.
“I knew the blockers were on that side,” Lewerke said, “so I did my best to get the first down.”
Michigan did manage to get the ball back and took advantage of a Frey hit out of bounds, eventually getting to the MSU 37 for the final play. That’s when O’Korn lofted the final pass that was knocked down by Bachie.
“It was up in the air for a minute, I’m not gonna lie,” Dowell said. “But Bachie and Khari Willis came across and made a play to end the game.”
And now the season looks different, for both teams.
Michigan wonders where it stands while Michigan State moves forward with a new confidence.
“We’ve done it eight times,” Dantonio said. “Done it eight times, so I don’t know why there’s a lot doubt. We’ll do it again at some point in time but for this year that’s the way it went down. Doesn’t mean it’s’ gonna happen next year. They have a very good team. They are extremely well-coached with great talent. But we have some guys, too.”
Those guys proved, at least for now, they still own this rivalry.