EAST LANSING, Mich. — The best college football game of the 2021 season featured the best offensive football player in the nation and perhaps the best defensive player, and it was won by the man doing the best coaching job in the nation. Michigan State 37, Michigan 33 was vast and contained multitudes.
“Epic game,” winning coach Mel Tucker said afterward, in a slightly hoarse voice. “That was a classic. I mean, that was a big-time game.”
The 70 points scored were the most in regulation in this series since 1996, and nearly all of them came with attendant style points for artistry or drama. There was a touchdown pass of 93 yards, a touchdown run of 58, spectacular catches, jaw-dropping runs, precision passes and nearly 950 yards of offense. And it’s not like these defenses were weak links; both entered the day surrendering fewer than 20 points a game.
There was a steely comeback, with the Spartans roaring from a 30–14 deficit late in the third quarter. They played to the “keep chopping” mantra of Tucker, a man who speaks softly and carries a big ax. Tucker already was the leading national Coach of the Year candidate, and he put some more distance between himself and everyone else Saturday.
There was a forehead-slapping gaffe, when Michigan backup quarterback J.J. McCarthy and running back Blake Corum botched a mesh point and dropped the ball for the Spartans to recover in Wolverines territory. Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said starting QB Cade McNamara “was working through some stuff,” indicating that he was shaken up and thus not in the game, but McNamara had just led a scoring drive the previous series. He had taken a hard hit two series previously. Harbaugh had used McCarthy in spots on several series earlier in the game.
Seven plays after that unforced error, Michigan State scored what would be the winning touchdown, running back Kenneth Walker III’s fifth of the game, to go along with 197 rushing yards. The Spartans have never had a Heisman Trophy winner, and now a transfer from Wake Forest has sprinted, juked and pounded his way to frontrunner status. “I don’t feel like it’s a Heisman moment,” Walker said. “I just think it was a great team win.” (It may well turn out to be a Heisman moment for the nation’s leading rusher.)
And there was serial controversy, as undefeated Michigan State also went undefeated in replay reviews—one of which wiped a Wolverines touchdown off the board. It was replaced with a field goal, and that four-point swing ultimately was the winning margin. Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan’s wrecking ball of a defensive end, dove on a Payton Thorne fumble in the end zone after it was forced loose by sidekick David Ojabo. It was called a TD on the field and then reversed, ruling that Thorne was down before fumbling, just one of six or seven reviews that went Sparty’s way. “I made my thoughts known [to the officials] throughout the game,” losing coach Harbaugh said regarding the reviews that all went against his team.
Incomprehensibly, after one of the best of the 114 games in this series, some Michigan State fans celebrated this great victory by overturning a car in the parking lot outside the stadium and smashing in the windshield. It takes a special kind of stupid to do that. Until then, one of the most anticipated afternoons of the season went off perfectly. The game was a great showcase for two teams that still had some doubts to quell after playing fairly easy schedules.
Even in defeat, Michigan played well. Some defensive holes were exposed, the offense had some crucial failures finishing drives, and a physical running game was held more than 100 yards below its season average. But McNamara had a career day (383 passing yards and more than 400 in total offense); freshman receiver Andrel Anthony blew up, with the first six catches of his college career accounting for 155 yards; and the rest of the receiving corps stepped up as well.
In the end, Michigan State was just slightly better, dispensing another dose of heartburn in a rivalry that has swung toward the Spartans over the past dozen years. And now Tucker is the first coach in school history to win his first two games against Michigan, allowing the Spartans to retain possession of the Paul Bunyan statuette that goes to the winning school.
Michigan State’s College Football Playoff résumé takes on added luster, but a month of challenges lie ahead. Every remaining opponent has a winning record. First up is a trip to Purdue (5–3), which abruptly ended Iowa’s undefeated season start a couple weeks ago. Then comes explosive Maryland (5–3). Later the Spartans play at Ohio State and host Penn State. “It’s tough sledding,” Tucker cautioned. “You need to be playing well in November to get anything done.”
Thing is, nobody expected this Michigan State team to be in position to get anything done in November. Tucker’s hiring after a single 5–7 season at Colorado did not augur greatness, nor did his 2–5 debut in what amounted to a COVID-19 mulligan year. Breaking in a new starting quarterback and competing in a brutal division, I’m not sure anyone was picking the Spartans to finish higher than fifth in the Big Ten East.
But Tucker and his staff mined the transfer portal to perfection, picking up 15 players at eight positions. Several of them have made instant impacts, with Walker the biggest difference maker. He shared the running back duties at Wake, but once he arrived in East Lansing he put a stranglehold on the position. “When he walked in the door,” Tucker told Sports Illustrated earlier this month, “he just set the tone in the weight room.”
Walker’s strength is one of his primary assets, but far from his only one. Against Michigan Saturday he showcased a start-and-stop, change-of-direction dynamic that repeatedly had the Wolverines grasping at thin air. “God-given ability,” he said, while also crediting his father for working out with him all the time while he was growing up in Arlington, Tenn., outside of Memphis. Walker just kept escaping tackles, which is why Michigan State escaped with its eighth victory.
“Every time he touches the ball he has a chance to do something special,” Tucker said of Walker. “He can pop one at any moment.”
Walker said he knew nothing of this rivalry before arriving. Since then he got a crash-course history lesson, with Tucker and his staff devoting some time to the subject in the lead-up to this game. Walker certainly heard a lot about Michigan’s fumbled punt snap debacle of 2015, which just got some company in the pantheon of painful Wolverines losses to the Spartans.
When it was over, Walker was the first Spartan to sprint to the student section in the stadium and slap all the hands that were extended downward. While Michigan fans save their strongest emotions for Ohio State, these fans want nothing more than to beat the Wolverines. Spartan Stadium was charged all afternoon, the atmosphere amped by both the rivalry and the two teams’ top-10 rankings.
“How can you not play your heart out and coach your heart out in an environment like that?” Tucker asked. He’s gotten his Spartans to play and coach their hearts out eight straight times. Still chopping. Still winning.
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