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  • Buckle up for the next month and a half of Big Ten East play. Michigan State made clear that nothing will come easy with an upset win in Ann Arbor.
By Joan Niesen
October 08, 2017

By the start of the fourth quarter, everyone in the Big House was drenched, and two in-state rivals were separated by four points—the Paul Bunyan Trophy was up for grabs, as long as anyone could get a grip on it. It was anyone’s game, and Michigan State took it.

The Spartans’ 14–10 win over No. 7 Michigan was close throughout—the game’s largest lead was the 11-point margin Michigan State held for much of the second quarter—and between the rivalry and the weather, the entire second half seemed destined for a wild finish. Michigan threw interceptions on three consecutive possessions in the third and fourth quarters; on their ensuing three possessions off those turnovers, the Spartans lost a total of 13 yards. With backup QB John O’Korn running the offense, the Wolverines failed to capitalize on Michigan State’s lackluster offense in the middle of the deluge, and their vaunted defense nearly spoiled their last chance at a game-winning drive, yielding one first down on an offside penalty and another on a desperation scramble by MSU quarterback Brian Lewerke.

The Spartans’ self-inflicted wounds—a holding penalty later in the same drive that doubled as a precious timeout and a personal foul on Michigan’s final possession that pushed the ball to midfield—gave the Wolverines new life, but wide receiver Eddie McDoom dropped what would have been a big gain in the final half-minute and quarterback John O’Korn’s desperation heave for the end zone was knocked away, sealing their second consecutive crushing home loss in the contentious in-state rivalry.

Going into Saturday, Michigan was undefeated and the Big Ten’s second highest-ranked team behind No. 4 Penn State, which took care of business at Northwestern in the early window. Michigan State hadn’t appeared in the poll all season after a 3–9 finish in 2016, and it was one of three one-loss teams in the division. Even with its 3–1 record, it seemed like an afterthought in the conference, plummeting to the basement last year after spending much of the last decade near the top of the Big Ten.

With one win, the Spartans got to both play spoiler to their archrivals and regain their national relevance that was lost so abruptly last season. But they also set the tone for a wild month, promising more confusion atop one of college football’s toughest divisions.

Michigan will catch a break next week, when it gets Indiana, but the following Saturday it travels to Penn State. Lose that game, and it’ll be a long climb for the Wolverines to try to reach the conference title game. Win, and the entire division is a jumble; most likely, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State would all have one loss, but the Buckeyes and Spartans would be the only of the four teams without a conference defeat, and with Ohio State still left to play the other three East contenders down the stretch.

Michigan State’s one loss this season, in Week 4 to Notre Dame, doesn’t look so bad in retrospect now that the Irish are 5–1 and ranked No. 21. With the win over Michigan, the Spartans officially enter the Big Ten title game conversation; they could easily be 7–1 by the time they host Penn State on Nov. 4.

Saturday’s win lifted Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio to 8–3 against Michigan during his time in East Lansing and dealt a big initial blow to yet another year of lofty expectations for Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor—Harbaugh is now a combined 1–4 against Michigan State and Ohio State. With the victory, the Spartans should get a crack at the AP Poll as they work to continue playing spoiler in their division. Wisconsin’s beatdown of Nebraska reaffirmed that the conference is somewhat solidified on one side of the slate; in the West, only the Badgers look like a playoff contender. The other side is very much up for grabs.

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