EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi couldn't get too mad about the six 15-yard penalties called on the Spartans for some form of unnecessary roughness Saturday. "That's what we try to do," Narduzzi said after Michigan State's 28-14 win against Michigan. "Sixty minutes of unnecessary roughness. I'm just happy it didn't get called on every snap."
Narduzzi drew a distinction between close calls for untapped aggression and stupid penalties such as the ones called on safety Isaiah Lewis (a late hit out of bounds) and defensive end William Gholston (throwing a punch at a Michigan offensive lineman), but Narduzzi made no apologies for the way the Spartans hit the Wolverines between each whistle. He won't do much yelling in film sessions, because he doesn't want to weigh down his players with worries about penalties. They play faster when they're unburdened.
So while they may call Michigan State a dirty team from their ivory towers 65 miles southeast in Ann Arbor, Narduzzi isn't worried. Michigan Men can call the Spartans dirty all they want. But they can't call them losers. "I know we're 4-0 against them in the past four years," Narduzzi said.
Indeed, Michigan State completed its first four-game sweep of Michigan since 1959-62, and everyone in green basked in the glow. The student section chanted "Little Sisters" at the Wolverines, and senior guard Jared McGaha carried the Paul Bunyan Trophy off the field Saturday while fellow senior guard Joel Foreman held up four fingers. The Spartans -- who bravely played on even after Nike accidentally delivered them a crate containing Colorado State's uniforms -- didn't have to call Michigan soft. The Wolverines did that themselves. "They were definitely more physical," Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs said. "They pounded us. They beat us up."
While Michigan continued to try and reconcile former coach Rich Rodriguez's spread personnel with first-year coach Brady Hoke's stated desire to run a power offense, Michigan State suffered no such identity crisis. The Spartans, with guards Foreman and Chris McDonald paving the way, averaged 5.5 yards a rush. When Michigan State absolutely needed a throw, quarterback Kirk Cousins stood in against an array of Michigan blitzes and delivered strikes. Cousins dropped back to throw four times on third down in Saturday's second half. On three of those, Cousins completed a pass to keep the drive alive. The first was a touchdown pass to Keshawn Martin on third-and-goal from the 10 that put Michigan State up 14-7. The second and third allowed Michigan State to drive for another Martin score that gave the Spartans a 21-7 lead.
Still, Michigan made it exciting. The critics of Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson can register a myriad of complaints about his passing ability, but they can never call him boring. With Robinson's passes -- which aren't normally Scud missiles anyway -- fluttering in a vicious wind, Michigan State seemed quite in control of the air space around Spartan Stadium. But because Robinson's team is somehow never out of chances, the junior, who completed only nine of 24 passes, naturally fired a rocket to Roy Roundtree early in the fourth quarter. Roundtree grabbed the pass and sprinted away from stunned Michigan State defenders for a 34-yard touchdown.
After Kovacs recovered a J.T. Floyd fumble on the Spartans' next play, Michigan had the ball at the Michigan State's 32. On third-and-11, Robinson hit Jeremy Gallon for a 10-yard gain to the Spartans' nine-yard line. All the Wolverines needed was to figure out was who would carry the ball a yard on fourth-and-1. "You sneak it. You run the power play. Multiple things you could do," Hoke said with a twinge of regret. Instead, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges called a play action pass. Hoke said that particular play-action pass has served his teams well in the past. And it might have worked, but Narduzzi had sent cornerback Johnny Adams screaming in from the outside. Some Spartans bit on the fake handoff, but Adams grabbed Robinson and rode him down for a 10-yard loss.
The next time Robinson dropped back to throw, he threw directly to Michigan State's Lewis, who intercepted and returned it 39 yards for the clinching score. Teammates hoisted Lewis onto their shoulders. Still holding the ball, he hopped down and ran to the sideline to celebrate. As Lewis ran by, a Michigan manager stripped the safety of the ball, which is property of the University of Michigan. It was the best defensive play someone in maize and blue made all day.
Robinson ended the game on the bench after a late hit -- one Narduzzi wasn't entirely sure was late -- from Michigan State defensive end/linebacker Marcus Rush. Hoke didn't divulge any specifics about Robinson's injury. "He got beat up a little bit," Hoke said.
Fortunately, Michigan has an off week to heal any injuries or any wounded pride. This was the first of Hoke's countdown games. When he took over, he installed clocks in the football facility counting the seconds until the Michigan State and Ohio State games. A win against the Buckeyes is still possible, but the Wolverines now find themselves in the same position as 2009 and 2010. After a hot start, Michigan State provided a painful reality check. But Michigan players said this time feels different. They won't slide into the abyss after this loss, they said. Defensive tackle Mike Martin said he couldn't explain it, but he just knew Hoke's Wolverines would bounce back even though Rodriguez's didn't. Kovacs agreed. "It's easy to say this is the same Michigan team," Kovacs said. "But I have no doubt in my mind that we're not."
Here's a better question. Is this the same Michigan State team? The Spartans now must prepare for a visit from Wisconsin, which looks less like the team Michigan State beat last year in East Lansing and more like the Alabama team that annihilated the Spartans in the Capital One Bowl. If the Spartans want to prove something to the nation, they'll have to do it against the Badgers.
Because beating Michigan has just gotten too easy for Michigan State.