Michigan finally puts dagger through Spartans
East Lansing – Michigan seniors, the ones who remembered being battered and bruised in consecutive games at Michigan State in 2013 and 2014 and then stinging after last year’s stunning loss in the final seconds, were on a mission.
The second-ranked Wolverines, who had lost seven of the last eight against in-state rival Michigan State, including the last three, kept their unbeaten season intact, defeating the feisty Spartans, 32-23. They never gave up even after trailing by 20 points Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
For the Michigan seniors, beating Michigan State before they exited their college careers was a priority, but the Spartans had no intention of making this easy and exposed some weaknesses in the Wolverines’ top-rated defense.
When they reached their locker room, though, the Paul Bunyan Trophy was waiting.
“If anything, it feels like it didn’t happen,” said UM running back De’Veon Smith, who scored two touchdowns. “It will probably hit me tomorrow.”
Smith knows why he wasn’t immediately processing the victory and why it didn’t feel real.
“Because I’ve never had possession (of the trophy) before, probably,” he said.
A large contingent of Michigan fans peppered the stadium with maize and blue, eager to see the Wolverines, who entered the game as big favorites, finally snap a four-game losing streak at Spartan Stadium.
The Spartans, who started the game strong and finished with a fourth-quarter flourish, outscoring Michigan 13-5, undoubtedly caused some nail-biting among the Michigan fan base.
This is the first time since 1982 the Spartans have lost six straight and also been winless in the Big Ten at this stage of the season.
Michigan is 8-0 and 5-0 in the Big Ten; MSU is 2-6 and 0-5.
“You can feel good that you competed,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said. You can feel good that things went in this direction. You can feel good as a coach that you had an opportunity to win this football game. But we have to convert on opportunities. When you play a good football team you can’t miss on opportunities. You have to make good on opportunities.”
All week the Michigan players said they were treating the Michigan State game as just another “championship game” – no different than any other game on their schedule. But do-everything Jabrill Peppers, who had a three-yard touchdown run, seven tackles – including a critical sack on fourth down in the fourth quarter -- and a return of a fumbled conversion attempt, revealed it was much more to the Wolverines.
“Every game is a big game, just some are bigger than others,” Peppers said. “I don’t have to explain to you guys the magnitude of this game. We haven’t won here since ’07. We just wanted to come out here and win. That’s it. Yeah, some games are bigger than others, but every game is a big game.”
Michigan State played three quarterbacks in the game and never flinched, even after Michigan scored on a momentum-building 23-yard field goal at the end of halftime, giving the Wolverines a 27-10 lead.
Both teams were scoreless in the third quarter until Allen made a 45-yard field goal – he made three field goals in the game – to extend the lead to 20. And still, Michigan State never folded.
“They’re a scrappy bunch,” Peppers said. “Their record doesn’t show how good those guys are. We knew we were going to get their best game. We get everyone’s best game.”
LJ Scott led the Spartans with 139 yards rushing and a touchdown, the first score of the game.
MSU receiver R.J. Shelton said the Spartans always thought they could win.
“You’re not gonna back down,” Shelton said. “You’re not gonna curl up in ball and not scrap for anything. That’s not how this program is built. You do whatever you need to, if it’s three seconds on the clock, 10 seconds on the clock. You always feel like you have a chance. You’re not just gonna give up.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, whose offense had been averaging 48.7 points a game, and whose defense had allowed an average 207 yards and 10 points a game, admired how his team stood up to the Michigan State fight.
“We were tested in all phases,” Harbaugh said. “We were sure that was going to be the case. Our guys made the plays throughout the ball game. Start to finish our guys made a few more plays. It was a good, tight game. Good for our guys to be tested that way. Good for them to come through.”
Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight, making his first start in the rivalry, had a steady performance, with the exception of a third-quarter interception, his third of the season. Receiver Amara Darboh had 165 yards on eight catches, giving Michigan its big-play threat.
Michigan State pulled to 30-17 with 7:31 left in the game after backup quarterback Brian Lewerke connected on a 20-yard touchdown pass to Monty Madaris. Lewerke moved the Spartans efficiently, going 59 yards on five plays in 1:31.
The Spartans were on the move again and reached the Michigan 13-yard line with about two minutes left in the game. But Peppers sacked Lewerke for an eight-yard loss on fourth down. The Spartans were 1-of-4 on fourth down. Michigan State scored again with 36 seconds left when Tyler O’Connor and Donnie Corley connected on a five-yard pass.
On the conversion attempt, O’Connor fumbled and Peppers got the ball and sprinted to the end zone for the final two points of the game.
“It was an exhilarating feeling to finally get this chip off our shoulder,” Peppers said. “This one we had marked since last year. We just wanted to come in here and bring Paul back.”