Paul Bunyan Makes the Return Trip to East Lansing With a 34-17 Thumping of the Michigan Wolverines

Jonathan Schopp

The Spartans went down to Ann Arbor today and flat out pounded the Maize and Blue around Michigan Stadium into a very friendly shade of Green. With returning Coach Mark Dantonio again leading the way, the Spartans waxed their “Little Sis…,” errr…sibling Wolverines all over the Big House to a 34-17 victory. It probably wasn’t even that as close.

Someone tell the shorter, yet so-called “Older Brother,” that Little Brother has now grown up. He’s gotten bigger than him, better him, and today he left “older brother” out there all bruised and embarrassed for the entire nation to see. “Older Brother” looked a lot more today, like an overmatched “little sister.”

The game was all but decided about mid-way through the 3rd Quarter, as the Spartans pulled out of realistic “comeback distance,” and no doubt many in the “national audience” went searching from there for a more competitive finish. The World Wide Leader’s (ESPN) heavily prepped "Denard Robinson for Heisman" script was ruined. Before the end of the 4th, many Michigan fans had again left their home field for good, and the “Go Green…Go White” chant once again echoed around bottom of Michigan Stadium.

That’s not to say that today’s victory over Michigan came all that easily. It was earned with hard work, and a disciplined effort. Coming into this, the 8th meeting between an undefeated Michigan and Michigan St. since MSU joined Big 10 in 1953, the Spartans were 5-1-1 in the previous such affairs. Though that interesting stat had literally nothing to do with today’s 3 Quarter runaway, the Wolverines’ intensity to start the game, did.

Before the game, Coach Dantonio said quite simply, “we’ve gotta trump their excitement” from the start. Dantonio repeated what we have discussed often as one of the keys to winning games on the road, matching the intensity of the home team. But credit Michigan early as they came to play on both sides of the ball. For a Defense ranking last in the nation against the pass, the Wolverines came out and put together a relatively solid effort to start and kept MSU blanked for the opening Quarter. Clearly, the Wolverines were lifted up by the favorable crowd of 113,065. But as the 2nd Quarter began to set in, the shaky Michigan D began to crack at force of The BBC (Running Backs: Bell, Baker, & Caper).

So. RB Rock Baker showed again why he was such a highly touted national recruit for the ‘09 class. Within two plays early in then 2nd Quarter, Baker featured the top flight athleticism and skill of the big time play maker he has now become. Baker started the Spartans' second drive of the Quarter with an 8 yard run through a neck twisting "15-yard Face Mask," and through the Michigan Defense's cleanest and hardest hit of the day. Baker bounced off both attacks to complete the 8 yard gain, and set the Spartans' tone on the ground for the rest of the afternoon.

After the penalty yards were spotted, Baker broke the next snap to the house for 61 yards, and shifted the Spartan ground attack firmly into another gear. Baker burst one in the same mold as Javon Ringer did a couple years ago at Michigan Stadium. His power, speed, and agility were simply too much for the overmatched Wolverines to handle on a consistent basis today. Baker ended the day with 22 carries for 149 yards and that TD, and he probably could’ve had more if MSU needed it.

The end of the 1st half became ultimately critical to the game’s final conclusion. Facing a 4th and 3 at the Michigan 39, the Spartans had their third head scratching 4th down situation in four weeks. Giving Sr. P Aaron Bates a chance to pin the Wolverines deep seemed a worthy option, but would’ve left Michigan with plenty of time to move their quick strike attack back down the field to close the gap. So the Spartans decided to gamble a bit, and used a decisive personnel advantage by lining up 5-wide to keep the drive going.

As we discussed on Spartan Nation radio Friday night, Michigan was unable to matchup with MSU when they spread out 4 or 5 wide. With a precise route and pass from Cousins to fellow Rs.-Jr. WR B.J. Cunningham, the Spartans secured the 1st down and kept the clock working down in their favor. That play cannot be forgotten.

If that key conversion wasn’t enough, it would again be the play making machine in Green, Jr. Keyshawn Martin, who would steer the game’s direction on a 3rd down WR screen pass. Martin used his blockers to find enough space to take it down 14 yards to the Michigan 21, setting up a reasonable Field Goal opportunity for So. PK Dan Conroy.

Conroy was again “money,” and split the uprights to put the Spartans up 17-10 with just :23 left in the 1st half. Yet, as fans of the Spartans and Wolverines know, it’s never over in this game as long as there’s any time left on the clock. And with a terrific throw and catch from Michigan So. QB Denard Robinson to Jr. WR Martavious Odoms for 51 yards, the Wolverines suddenly stood on the MSU 25 with :03 left, and a decent shot at a lead-chipping Field Goal.

The Michigan kicking game has some serious challenges right now, and with a balky snap from Center on the FG try, they sealed the fate of the final Blue hope for the 1st half. The spotty snap gave MSU time to penetrate "that line of Blue," and gave So. DT Jerel Worthy enough time to get his hands up to block the kick and protect the Spartans’ Half Time lead at 17-10.

The first drive of the 2nd half was then set up as a major opportunity for the Spartans to take command of the game. MSU knew during the break that if they could put up 7 on that initial drive of the 3rd, they could pull 2 scores ahead on a Michigan team that still possessed the ability to score on any single offensive play. After a good drive and carefully set up play call, Cousins threw a 2nd down beauty to a striding Sr. WR Mark Dell for a 41 yard TD to put the Spartans firmly in the driver’s seat at 24-10.

The Spartans' winning stretch that put them up 2 scores had to change the mentality of the Blue. When a team falls behind that much, especially in a rivalry game, they're instantly hit with another level of urgency. And many times in that scenario, College Football teams begin to press. On the ensuing 3rd and 9, with about 10:15 left, Michigan’s Robinson tried to force once again in the Spartan Red Zone. Spartan Rs.-So. DB Johnny Adams was on the spot, and picked Robinson off in the scoring zone for the second time of the day.

What happened next was exactly the kind of 93-yard back breaking and morale crushing drive that was needed to start warming up the Paul Bunyan bus back to East Lansing. MSU gashed the then heavily heel-leaning Wolverine Defense again by ground and air. Offensive Coordinator Don Treadwell decided to dig into the Spartans' bag of trickeration to pull something special out that Spartan Nation had yet to see from the Offense of 2010.

On a 1st and 10 from the Michigan 49, MSU went something like “reverse-option: bomb,” which ended up on a 49 yard arc from Cousins to Rs.-Jr. WR Keith Nichol. From there, it was two power runs by So. RB Larry Caper (the “C” of The BBC) behind a strengthening Spartan Offensive Line to make it 31-10. The lights had essentially been turned out again on the Rodriguez led Baby Blues. The Spartans had just ripped off 24 straight points, and realistically started their run out of Ann Arbor with the 4 foot Paul Bunyan trophy they intended to return back to East Lansing. MSU was set to beat Michigan for the third straight time.

Dantonio: 3, Rodriguez: 0.

Anyone hear any good Wolverine excuses yet?

The Spartans’ Outlook Moving Forward

Offense

Kirk Cousins owned it all week. If the Spartans won, he did his job. If they didn’t, he didn’t. Cousins clearly understands the mandate and evaluation of playing Quarterback under Mark Dantonio: you’re judged first by wins and losses. Cousins is now 4-1 in rivalry games, (with shared credit to Nichol for last year’s win over Michigan) and 6-0 for the year. How many times has a Spartan QB been able to say that?

Today the Rs-Jr. led the Offense to 34 smooth points, topping 30 for the sixth straight game. Cousins was a road ready and poised 18/25, for 275 yards and 1 TD. He importantly had 0 turnovers. Cousins led from the front, and took a big step forward by beating the Spartans’ most bitter rival again, on the road. That cannot be understated. Look at all the accomplished Spartan Quarterbacks of the last generation. How many have won handily on the road in Michigan Stadium? Credit Captain Kirk for his fine performance today.

The BBC (Bell, Baker, & Caper) took a while to get going today, but ended the day with a serious bang and pop that demoralized the Wolverine Defense for a healthy 260 yards on the ground. Each member of the fine Running Back firm also picked up his own rushing TD. Their motto, as you now clearly know by heart, is simply “Pound Green Pound!” For the sixth straight game, they did just that.

Though they have clearly set the tone for the 6-0 start, they haven’t done it alone. The BBC took off behind an Offensive Line that survived the initial Michigan Defensive surge, and then blew them out the way as the game wore on. When down field blocking assistance was needed, the MSU contingent of WRs and TEs did their part in the big ground effort.

Sr. WR Mark Dell had a nice send off in likely his last Metro-Detroit College Football game.  Dell pulled down 3 balls today for 93 yards, including the 41 yard TD bomb from Cousins. Dell was not alone though, as WRs Keith Nichol, B.J. Cunningham, and do-it-all Keyshawn Martin put up numbers too. Yet, not to be left out of the 536 total yards of Offense for the day, MSU TEs Linthicum and Gantt caught a couple balls as well, when needed, to stretch out the already porous Michigan Defense.

The Offense knew it had to score in the 30s today, and did so rather easily this afternoon, in only 3 Quarters. They are probably the Big Ten’s most balanced Offensive attack right now, though they’ll be tested much more as the Conference season matures.

Defense

The Defense gave up 17 points to what might be the Big Ten’s most explosive Offense, and certainly its most explosive individual player. Michigan’s So. QB Denard Robinson is a play maker. The only way to even contain him is with an extremely detailed and poised attack. The Spartans did that all game, as Robinson’s line of 21 carries for only 84 yards and 1 TD was rather ordinary, and his passing day of 17/29, 1 TD and 3 INTs, was simply not good. Credit the MSU Defense big time today. Few, if any in the Spartan Nation, could have expected Michigan to end up with less than 3 scores (24 points) for the afternoon.

Robinson is operating with a superior set of legs and feet not seen in the Big Ten at the QB position since the days of Indiana’s Antwaan Randel-El. Robinson didn’t quite get his on the ground today, and notably didn’t get a big chunk or two out of his stunted 84 yard effort. He was contained by the Spartan D. MSU did not let him beat them on the ground, which has to be a huge confidence burst for Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi and the Spartan Nation.

When forced to go to the air, Robinson proved not quite ready for the Big Ten’s prime time as he threw 3 INTs, including the two critical ones down in the Spartan Red Zone. Those INTs were part Robinson, part Spartan Defense. As much as ESPN would like you to believe that Robinson simply gave MSU the three picks, it wasn’t that simple. The much maligned Spartan Pass Defense created those opportunities, and made plays when they had their chances.

DB Johnny Adams again showed today that he’s got “ball skills,” as did intercepting Sr. CB C.L. Rucker, and Jr. Trenton Robinson who caught the pick on Michigan’s first drive of the game. Without the execution of those three turnovers, this would not have been a game that was essentially in the books after only 45 minutes.

After a performance against Wisconsin that was as good as the Spartan Defense had been since the Citrus Bowl loss to Georgia on Jan. 1, 2009, the Defense took a real step forward today and put together their second straight fine effort. As the Big Ten season thickens into fall, the Spartan Defense might just be turning the corner for good.

Special Teams

So. PK Dan Conroy has gone from unproven and unpredictable to steady and reliable only 2 weeks into Big Ten play. That’s not to say that Conroy will never miss a kick, or never miss a big kick. But it is to say that Conroy is now a true proven commodity. He’s established himself as a reliable asset moving forward. The FGs he made at the end of the 1st half and mid-way through the 4th, on the road in a rivalry game, solidified that for good. MSU looks to be developing yet another outstanding College PK, which seems to have become the norm now in East Lansing.

Jr. Keyshawn Martin continues to do it all. Martin has the confidence and maturity in his 3rd year skills that make him a game changer anytime he’s on the field. Martin made plays all over the field again Saturday, and was not surprisingly involved again in some of the game’s true impact plays (ex. 3rd down before FG at the end of the 1st half). It’s simply what K-Mart does for the Green and White, and it cannot be understated.

Overall

The Spartans should enjoy this one; they earned it as a program. And they’ve earned the accolades they’ll receive nationally for their 6-0 start. Though they might be tempted to peak ahead towards a match-up with Iowa in 3 weeks that could have serious Rose Bowl implications, they must not overlook an improving Fighting Illini. The Zookers ambushed Happy Valley today for the first time in school history, and destroyed the Lions 33-13. They cannot be overlooked.

MSU now stands atop the Big Ten after a perfect 6-0 start for the first time since the magical season of 1999. But check your history, Spartan Nation, games 7 and 8 of the 1999 season were a complete disaster. MSU got blown out in both affairs, and was instantly out of the run for the Roses for good. But Coach D was on the staff for that steep drop on the ’99 roller coaster, and will assuredly be committed not to let that happen again in 2010.

Illinois and Northwestern are teams that must be respected and prepared for with a Championship effort, if any real hopes for a Big Ten Championship are going to survive until the matchup with Iowa. For now though, Spartan Nation can go to bed tonight dreaming of another special season, and a very legitimate shot at playing once again for the glory of the Roses.

*Interact with Jonathan on Twitter @JPSpartan or inside the Phalanx Forum

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