Spartans Grind Down Wolverines for Their Fourth Straight Victory, 28-14

Jonathan Schopp

In the 104th meeting of the state of Michigan’s fierce sibling rivals, and perhaps the first without traditional uniforms, 77,515 strong came out early and withstood a swirling wind and choppy play to see MSU win its 4th straight over their most bitter rival. Though the Spartans took what could’ve been a comfortable win and turned it into a bit of a nail biter, they did enough to close the deal. Paul Bunyan will once again be locked up inside the Skandalaris Center for at least another calendar year. The better team won today, it's really that simple.

Mark Dantonio and Brady Hoke both confirmed after Halftime that the wind played a factor on every single snap.  This game might be known in the rivalry’s record books for the wind as much as anything else. Given the extreme wind, the rushing battle, which has coincided with the game's victor in now 40 of the last 43 games, became even more magnified. Both teams appeared to feel that heightened importance from the very first snap, and both Offenses were forced to adjust.

After Michigan took the opening drive from their 20 down to the MSU 20 (into the wind), things started to get interesting. Following a 5-yard Delay of Game penalty on 3rd and 1, Michigan had to then use a Time Out before snapping the 3rd and 6.

Looking like 4 down territory because of the wind, Michigan’s first year Head Coach decided to set up for the Field Goal only to run a fake run with his holder Drew Dileo (So. WR). Dileo got just enough blocking to get the nose of the ball over the line for a key 1st and 10 from the MSU 19. Had he come up short, there’s a good chance Michigan fans would’ve had their first real opportunity to question their new Head Man.

After a 4-yard carry from Fitzgerald Toussaint (Rs.-So. RB), Michigan’s X-factor Denard Robinson (Jr. QB) made something special out of what looked like a sure Anthony Rashad White (Jr. NT) sack. Robinson shook White’s hand off his jersey, reversed his field entirely, and ran to the pylon for a 15-yard Touchdown run to cap the 10 play 80-yard drive. The Michigan Offense was off to a solid start.

On the Spartans’ first drive of the day from their 37, MSU started on the ground early. Edwin “Rock” Baker (Jr. RB) came out with an edge and got going right away. Save for a big drop by Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) on what would’ve been a sure TD from Kirk Cousins (Rs.-Sr. QB), the Spartans had their way as they took is 63-yards in 9 plays to tie it up at 7-7. Cousins looked sharp and Baker looked blazing in his first 5 carries and 49 yards of the day.

And at the end of the 1st Quarter as the wind continued to howl across Spartan Stadium, the game was tied and felt tight. The rushing battle was tight as well with Michigan St. holding the 69-63 edge, but you could sense that big plays would be coming because so many were left on the field though via drops, missed tackles, and missed opportunities from both teams early on.

The 2nd Quarter was much more choppy and back and forth from its start. Any smooth rhythm or pace was pretty much blown away with the wind. MSU’s 3rd Personal Foul penalty ofthe Half gave Michigan a burst during the Quarter’s second drive, and moved the Blue out to their 47. After a couple more Denard Robinson runs, Michigan looked to get an overly generous spot on a 3rd and 2 run that MSU couldn’t challenge since they had used one on Michigan’s opening drive.

Coming out of a Timeout a few plays later, Michigan flip-flopped their Quarterbacks and brought Devin Gardner (So. QB) back in for a 2nd and 10. Gardner missed a wide open Wolverine down the middle of the field that would’ve been 6 for Michigan. Their decision to switch out Gardner and Robinson seemed to disrupt their Offense all game long. Robinson returned for the 3rd down, however, and heaved one up into the breeze late in the play that Darqueze Dennard (So. CB) practically could’ve fielded for a “fair catch.” But with all that wind and time, Dennard couldn’t pull it in, and Michigan was forced to punt. That punt went out of bounds at the Spartan 5.

The Spartans continued to shoot themselves squarely in the foot with two more penalties before punting from their end zone, raising their Penalty Flag total to 8 for the Half, and keeping Michigan right in position to take the lead. Yet, thanks to a second very good punt from Mike Sadler (Rs.-P), Michigan began again only from their 46. It was that kind of game for Sadler, outstanding and unsung.

Michigan couldn’t move it more than 9 yards before having to punt, however, which became another adventure in the wind. One Official called the punt a Touchback but after a TV Time Out, the zebras huddled and determined the ball went out around the MSU 5. The wind caused havoc for the Officials today too as they failed to make all the calls out on the field, for either side. The Spartans started the Half’s final drive with some tempo, 2:23 on the clock, and 2 Time Outs in pocket.

After Baker cleared some room between MSU and their Goal Line by ground, Kirk Cousins went to work and hummed it out towards mid-field before the MSU disorganization and struggles reappeared. MSU had it 2nd and 1 from their own 44, but stalled out from there to end the Half tied 7-7. Understandably, the Spartan Stadium faithful wasn’t completely satisfied with their team that seemed only a play or two away from breaking this one open, but yet remained tied on the scoreboard.

MSU left a lot on the field in the first 30 minutes. Besides the 8 penalties for 67 yards and two big drops, MSU appeared to be clearly the better team, but had totally failed to take control of the game. In fact, they had kept Michigan in a game that the Blue appeared to be over matched in. The Wolverines should've been pretty thrilled with a 7-7 tie.

It was a dangerous position for the Spartans because of Denard Robinson, who remains as close to a Michael Vick clone running the ball as we’ve seen in the College game. At the Half, Hoke essentially admitted that Gardner’s passing edge over Robinson and the wind were the reasons they decided to switch Quarterbacks back and forth. But the passing game doesn’t usually determine the winner of this game. The critical rushing battle was tight as well with MSU just holding the 100 to 95-yard edge. At the end of the day, MSU more than doubled that number up.

The 2nd Half started with a fairly odd decision by Brady Hoke. Michigan tried a semi-onsides pooch that was fielded by Garrett Celek (Rs.-Sr. TE) and brought up to the MSU 46. The Spartans got behind their now settling Offensive Line, and best field position of the day, to run Rock Baker on 4 of the first 6 snaps to set up 1st and Goal from the 7. After being pushed back to their 10 for the 3rd down, Cousins found Keshawn Martin (Sr. WR) around the 3, and Martin did the rest.

After Martin slipped inside the 2, the Inkster (MI) native stretched out past the Defense and over the pylon to stretch the MSU lead to 14-7. It was yet another smooth play in space for one of the slickest Spartan pass catchers of all-time. It was chance for MSU to take that momentum and finally take control of the game.

After taking over at their own 27, Michigan’s struggles through the air continued as a frustrated Robinson had communication and execution issues with his Wide Outs. But another 15-yard Personal Foul, on William Gholston (So. DE), kept what would’ve been another UM “3 and Out” alive and going, and left Spartan Nation scratching at their heads at the continuing lack of poise.

Michigan could do no better than to punt for a Touchback though, and MSU took over with 6:17 left in the 3rd and a chance to take the game over. The first snap of the drive looked to be going well as Rock Baker broke one out to the 41, but was then stripped by Michigan’s Thomas Gordon (Rs.-So. S) for the turnover and huge momentum deflater.

The Wolverines moved the ball only 2 yards from there though, as the Spartan Defense picked Baker up with another 3 and Out that was highlighted by a 3rd down Denicos Allen (Rs.-So. LB) sack. The Baker fumble cost MSU momentum, but the Defense again stepped up and saved a potential unraveling. The Spartan Dawgs validated their dominance today to the entire nation, and flat out refused to lose the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

With another shot to take the game over and stretch their lead to two scores, MSU found success on a 3rd and 9 pass from Cousins to Cunningham to push it into UM territory. Three plays later, the Red Shirt Connection clicked again on a 3rd and 5 to keep the drive going as the 3rd Quarter wound down and the Spartan Defense grabbed a well deserved rest.

But Keshawn Martin wouldn’t let them rest into the 4th. Martin caught a similar looking open field pass from Cousins around the UM 10, and thanks to the spot on picks that were setup by Cunningham and Keith Nichol (Rs.-Sr. WR), had open space to work with again. Headed towards the same pylon he had scored on earlier in the day, Martin again dove out through a Michigan defender and into the end zone to stretch the lead to 21-7 with only seconds to go in the 3rd.

The Quarter didn’t end without a last gasp of drama, however, as Dantonio called a Time Out to leave Michigan with a 3rd and 8 from deep in their own end to face the prospect of having to punt one more time into the fierce wind. For only the third time on the day, a Michigan 3rd down was converted, and again padded by yet another 15-yard Personal Foul call against Gholston. Gholston was perhaps the epitome of the Spartans’ lack of poise today and borderline ridiculous mental gaffes. He played very well, but erased too much of that with foolish and immature mental mistakes.

As the 4th Quarter began, the MSU Seniors stood only 15:00 away from blanking Michigan during their 4-year playing careers. But because their lead was only 14, the Spartans needed a solid Quarter to wrap things up. They didn’t necessarily get it. After the 3rd, MSU led the rushing battle 178 to 104, but still left a little life in Maize and Blue, and the wind, for the final period of play.

Robinson and Gardner made their way from the UM 20 all the way down to the MSU 25 before facing yet another 3rd and 11. Equipment issues appeared to keep Robinson out for the down and Gardner in on a play that Michigan couldn’t afford to lose any yards. Once again, the wind made an impact. The Shotgun snap to Gardner was blown to his side, and while he saved from losing the fumble, Michigan was forced to punt and didn’t get anything out of one of their better drives of the day.

That punt was again blown around by the wind, went out of bounds at the MSU 15, and actually into about the 5th row seats. Yet, one more MSU penalty and only three plays later, Mike Sadler was forced to punt out of his end zone and through the a 30 mph wind. This was far from a simple task. Sadler’s 46-yard rugby style punt was solid, but the punt coverage wasn’t as UM’s Jeremy Gallon (Rs.-So. WR) took it 19-yards to the MSU 34.

One Denard Robinson to Roy Roundtree (Rs.-Jr. WR) 34-yard TD pass over the middle later, MSU had only a 7-point lead 21-14. Though Michigan had only 162 yards of total Offense to that point, they were somehow down only 7, had the wind, and thanks to the compounding MSU mental mistakes all day, were right there in it. Let the nail biting begin.

On the subsequent 1st down end-around to the confident and rolling Martin, the Senior completely lost the ball after 13 yards and turned it right back over to the momentum snatching Wolverines. MSU was in trouble, and Spartan Nation’s nails were quickly getting shorter. Three plays later, Michigan lined up to go for it on 4th and 1 and Robinson executed an option ball-fake to perfection and moved the chains up to the MSU 18. A game that looked like it was soon to be a comfortable MSU victory was suddenly transformed into a heart pounding grinder. On a second straight 4th and 1, Robinson was sacked on the blindside by Johnny Adams (Rs.-Jr. CB), who somehow went undetected by the entire Michigan Offense. Robinson never saw it coming, and Spartan fans might soon point to Adams Corner Blitz as the play that helped save a potential 4th Quarter disaster.

MSU got it back on downs with 6:16 left, and a need to pound out their fourth straight over Michigan on the ground. After 6 yards on the ground with Baker, MSU couldn’t covert a 3rd and 4 where Michigan might have been Offsides, and again asked Sadler to bail them out. After Sadler punted it 40 yards through the wind to be downed at the UM 35, Robinson had the ball once again with 4:40 on the clock.

Robinson took the 1st down snap and faced immediate blitz pressure from Max Bullough (So. LB) and had to let it go quickly. Robinson looked quickly to his right to throw, but didn’t see Safety Isaiah Lewis (So.), who picked Robinson clean and took it 39 yards for 6 more to extend the MSU lead back to two scores. The Spartans had finally made the play needed to break the game a little more open, and led more comfortably at 28-14. The Spartan Defense had led the way, and again closed the deal.

Stretching the lead back to 14 points didn’t stop MSU from adding to their Personal Foul total, however, as Marcus Rush (Rs.-Fr. DE) was next to catch the penalty epidemic that plagued MSU all day. Rush’s hit knocked Robinson out of the game again, but also kept the lesser Wolverines in the game via the 15-yard late hit, and zapped some of the Spartans’ INT-TD momentum. Rush worked to alleviate his mistake later on a 3rd and 11 (after Gardner took a penalty for throwing the ball on 2nd down beyond the line of scrimmage) when he beat two Wolverines with a spin move for the sack, and to force a 4th and 22 from the MSU 44. Gardner took the 4th down snap and was completely out of sorts as he was chased up and down the field by the Spartan Dawgs, mostly backwards, for a monstrous loss of 10.

As MSU took over with 3:18 left, it needed only to pound it out enough to burn through some clock and the two remaining Michigan TOs. Again they sputtered to a 3rd and 7. MSU was 6-12 on 3rd downs to that point when they decided to run the Rock for a game clinching sweep of 22 yards and 1st down to ice the game.

Senior Captain Kirk Cousins final plays against Michigan went exactly as he dreamed as the Spartans ran out the clock on Brady Hoke and the Wolverines for their fourth straight win in the series. Unsurprisingly, MSU won the rushing battle 213-82 in a game that should’ve never been as close as the score was late.

When the Spartans looked to shake hands with Michigan after it was all over, the Wolverines simply walked off the field in disgust. Was it because of the Spartans’ 13 Penalties for 124 yards, that actually kept the Wolverines in the game all day long? Was it because they were simply over matched and knew early on that they were not the better team? Or was it because another new chapter in this great sibling rivalry had just been written in ink?

The country’s most intense in-state rivalry has once again raised its stakes…the Spartans keep Paul Bunyan in East Lansing once again, 28-14.

Today’s Three Stars

1. Edwin “Rock” Baker—In the most physical game of the year, Baker set the tone with 26 carries for 167 yards and a TD, more than making up for his fumble, and played with an edge from start to whistle.

2. Keshawn Martin—One big drop early, one big fumble later, but two superstar TDs as well to capitalize for 6 when the Spartans needed it most.

3. Mike Hart—Without him, and the luckiest bounce in this series’ history in ‘07, this four game MSU winning streak might have never happened.

*Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan, and find him inside the Phalanx Forum