East Lansing — It's not over. It's never over. That's the Spartans' mantra, stirred furiously by the head coach, drilled brutally into their rivals yet again.
This time, Michigan State pulled off the predictable and the impossible at the same time. Predictably, the Spartans hammered the Wolverines 35-11 Saturday, dominating as they have for most of the past seven years. And amazingly, they took another ill-conceived Michigan taunt and chewed it into pulp.
The Wolverines have no idea how to handle this matchup right now, not a clue. That's on Brady Hoke and his staff, as the disintegration continues. Mark Dantonio is in complete command, winning six of the past seven, and in case the scoreboard didn't say it all, Dantonio said considerably more afterward. Even after a resounding victory, he was still seething about a motivational antic before the game, when Michigan players ran out and apparently planted a stake, or some type of spike, in the Spartan Stadium field.
"Just felt like we needed to put a stake in them," Dantonio said, referencing Michigan State's final late touchdown. "You might as well just come out and say what you're feeling at some point because you can only be diplomatic for so long. The little brother stuff, all the disrespect, it doesn't have to go in that direction. We try to handle ourselves with composure."
And there you go — another blast of fuel for a rivalry that engulfs the Spartans and barely flickers in the Wolverines. That's too bad from a competitive standpoint, as a shaken Devin Gardner turned the ball over three more times, but it's just fine with Michigan State.
TV cameras didn't catch the incident, which apparently occurred right before the national anthem, with linebacker Joe Bolden in the middle. While Hoke confirmed something happened, he wasn't sure what. As rivalry tactics go, it seems relatively mundane, but this is Michigan State, where nothing is mundane, and nothing is ever over.
So with the outcome decided, the Spartans kept ramming the ball, driving 48 yards for the final touchdown. Dantonio once famously said there was no more bowing to Michigan. In this one, there was no more kneeling, as the Spartans pounding away with seven straight Jeremy Langford runs, until he blasted the final 5 yards for a touchdown with 28 seconds left.
It was a purposeful punctuation punch, and Dantonio had no problem confirming it.
"Throwing the stake down in our backyard, coming out like they're all that, it got shoved the last minute and a half," Dantonio said. "It is never over. This is an ongoing process. This is not something that lays dormant. Michigan has a great program, and I don't want to disrespect them in that respect. They're going to play extremely hard, and they'll be ready next year."
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook discuss the Spartans' win over UM.
Maybe yes, maybe no. You'd think, at some point, the Wolverines would generate the fuel to fight back, but Hoke hasn't shown he's the guy to do it.
By definition, I suppose this classified as running up the score, although with Michigan State manuevering for a playoff spot, late touchdowns are readily justified. Hoke said he didn't have a problem with it, and he shouldn't. The Wolverines played hard, took their thumping and went home, and if they have a problem with Dantonio's reaction, they're entitled to do something about it one of these years.
Just because the Wolverines don't have the stomach or the toughness or the experience for the fight right now, doesn't mean Dantonio is going to let up. He talked matter-of-factly about his team's terrific defense, about staying focused, about enjoying the bye before Ohio State comes to town.
Then when the issue of the stake was brought up, as the stakes rise, the ol' Dantonio bite returned. Was that final touchdown a response to previous fourth-quarter letdowns or a notice to the playoff committee?
"Not this time," Dantonio said, eliciting some chuckles. "I'm not trying to be funny. This is embedded in people. It doesn't mean I don't like (Michigan) personally, but I understand the dynamics that go with this. This is the way it's been, and I'm just carrying on the tradition here."
The truth is, Dantonio's postgame flash of annoyance was the most compelling thing all day. Michigan State scored on the first drive, never gave Michigan much room to run, and did what everyone seems to do these days — wait for a Gardner gaffe. It's not all Gardner's fault because the Wolverines are still beaten soundly in the trenches, but his mistakes were especially costly.
The Spartans weren't quite as dominant as a year ago, when they rolled to a 29-6 victory and held the Wolverines to minus-48 yards rushing. It's a telling commentary on the state of the rivalry that a blowout like this is considered merely sufficient, not a head-turner. Quarterback Connor Cook was off, completing 12 of 22 passes, but he fired up his teammates on the first drive with a punishing 13-yard run to the Michigan 4, bowling over defensive back Delano Hill at the end.
Michigan State outrushed Michigan 219-65 and had a huge advantage in total yards (446-186), but wasn't happy it surrendered a touchdown to its rival for the first time in three years. Ultimately, this was a blip for the Spartans, who now prepare for the Buckeyes in two weeks, which will eliminate one from the playoff picture and significantly boost the other.
And while the pregame slight was all the talk, some players admitted they didn't see it, and didn't need to see it.
"If that's what they need for motivation, that's fine with me," defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "Doesn't matter what you do, we're gonna come out and play Spartan Dawg football. If you need to put a stake in the ground, that's fine. If you need to wave your flag, doesn't matter to us. I'm happy Coach D was upset, that just shows he has passion against those guys."
The message was delivered loudly again, with no ambiguity. If the Wolverines want to climb back to a level with the Spartans, make no mistake, it'll take more than a stake.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke discusses the loss to MSU on Saturday in East Lansing.