Even though we want to win them all, Michigan fans hope to win two games more than the others every year. One of them is The Game. The other is against the Michigan State Spartans. It's tough to say which of the two rivalries is more important to the Wolverines, but I'd guess that most would pick the Ohio game (I think I would as well). However, there's an element in the Michigan-Michigan State game that The Game can't create. As I'm sure most of you do, I have family and close friends that are Spartans: my cousins are Spartans, people I grew up with are Spartans. But I can only think of one friend that likes Ohio (and he's not even from the Midwest: he's a cocky Boston/New England fan, which doesn't help). The Michigan-Michigan State game pits family and friends against one another, something that's a bit more rare during Michigan vs. Ohio.
On November 2nd, the Wolverines and Spartans will meet for the 106th time. They first met in 1898 in Ann Arbor, when the Spartans weren't the Spartans yet. At the time, they were called the Aggies since the school was called Michigan Agricultural College, and the football team was only playing its second year of varsity football. The Wolverines dominated the game as well as kicking the first field goal in team history. The Detroit Free Press ran an article titled "Michigan Practices on the M.A.C. for a Fair Total" the next day:
Michigan took the Michigan Agricultural College team to camp this afternoon by the score of 39 to 0. Although Michigan had no trouble in gaining as she pleased, the line men did not block a single kick, and with some exceptions, there was a lack of aggressiveness when the farmers had the ball. The game was essentially a practice game, as twenty-five men were tried at different times.
Michigan would win the next two meetings by a combined score of 165-0 before the first game was played in East Lansing in 1908. The teams would play to a 0-0 tie and the Free Press called it "the greatest game of football ever seen in this part of the state." The Spartans would lose three more games before getting their first victory against the Wolverines in 1913. However, Michigan State would only beat Michigan eight more times (in 37 meetings) before the first presentation of the Paul Bunyan-Governor of Michigan Trophy in 1953. Even though the Little Brown Jug has a better origin story and gets more national attention, the Paul Bunyan Trophy doesn't lack prestige (or size: it's 4 feet tall). The naming reflects Michigan's lumbering heritage as well as the fact that the legend of Paul Bunyan originated in Northern Michigan. Since Michigan's Governor at the time, G. Mennen Williams, first handed out the trophy, the rivalry has heated up, becoming the must-see television it is today. Before Paul Bunyan, Michigan controlled the series, with a 33-9-3 record, but after 1953, Michigan leads by a strong, but less dominating, record of 35-23-2.
November 14th, 1953, Michigan 6 - Michigan State 14
When Michigan and Michigan State met in 1953, it wasn't just the first battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy; it was also the first meeting between the teams as Big Ten rivals. State joined the freshly named Big Ten (before '53 it was the Western Conference) after three dominant seasons as an independent: 9-0 the previous two seasons, in which they won back-to-back National Championships, and 8-1 in '50. Coming into the 1953 game, the Spartans were ranked #4 in the nation and 6-1 overall. Prior to their loss at the hands of Purdue earlier in the season, Michigan State had won 28 straight games dating back to 1950, including the last three against Michigan. On the other side, the Wolverines were unranked at 5-2 and in the middle of a downslide after winning four Big Ten titles in a row from '47 to '50.
Surprisingly, the internet didn't yield much information on the specifics of the game, and I didn't have time to go through microfilm archives of newspapers at the library. Regardless, after winning the Paul Bunyan trophy, the Spartans won the Rose Bowl against #5 UCLA and finished the season ranked #3 overall. They would go on to enjoy more success under legendary coach Duffy Daugherty in the '50's and '60's by adding four more National Championships in '55, '57, '65, and '66. From 1953 until 1969, the Spartans went 11-4-2 against Michigan, a complete turnaround from the earlier years of the rivalry.
For Michigan, the loss against State didn't crush them, as they beat Ohio to close out the season at 6-3 and ranked #20. The Wolverines, however, would not have the same success as the Spartans through the '50's and '60's, winning the Big Ten Title only once, in 1964. But everything would change in 1969 when Bo took over as Head Coach. The Wolverines would lose to State in '69, but after that, the Wolverines won eight straight games against the Spartans, the longest winning streak for either team in the series. Bo would only lose against Michigan State four times in 21 seasons at Michigan. During that time, Michigan dominated the Big Ten, winning the title 13 times, while the Spartans would only take the Big Ten twice.
"Number One vs. No One" on October 13th, 1990, Michigan 27 - Michigan State 28
Entering the game in 1990, the Wolverines were riding high. They had only lost to the Spartans four times since 1969 and were ranked #1 at 3-1 (their only loss at the hands of previously #1 ranked Notre Dame) with their eyes set on the first National Championship for Michigan since 1948. The Spartans, on the other hand, were in the midst of a brief string of successes under head coach George Perles. They won the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl in 1987 and finished in the top three of the Big Ten in '88 and '89. The Spartans came into the game at 1-2-1, a record that didn't reflect the closeness of their losses and the talent on the team.
Tied at 14 halfway through the 4th quarter, the Spartans would take the lead with 6:03 remaining. Desmond Howard would respond on the following kickoff, returning the ball 95 yards for a touchdown. With the game tied once again, Michigan State would drive down the field, draining some of the clock in the process and score the go-ahead touchdown with 1:59 left in the game. Led by quarterback Elvis Grbac, the Wolverines drove 70 yards in 13 plays to score what should have been the game-tying touchdown. Since overtime didn't exist in college football in 1990, Gary Moeller - in his first year as Michigan's head coach - decided to go for the win instead of tying their rival. For the two point conversion, Grbac looked to hit Desmond Howard in the back of the endzone, but the ball slipped out his hands. However, there's controversy over the play since the Spartans seemed to interfere with Howard before the dropped catch. But no call was made at the time, giving Michigan State the victory.
After the game, the supervisor of Big Ten officials apologized to Moeller for the missed call. Unfortunately, that doesn't change the outcome of the game. The two teams would finish the season tied for the Big Ten title. The Wolverines would go on to win the Gator Bowl and finish #7 overall at 9-3. The Spartans would win the Sun Bowl and finish #16 overall at 8-3-1. Check out some highlights here, or if you just want to judge the Howard interference no-call, look here.
"Clockgate" on November 3rd, 2001, Michigan 24 - Michigan State 26
It's a game that still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of Wolverines. Coming into the 2001 matchup, Michigan was deep into their dominating Lloyd Carr-era, three seasons removed from a National Championship, and on track to contend for another. The Wolverines entered the game ranked #6 at 6-1 and undefeated in Big Ten play. The Spartans, on the other hand, were floundering after being abandoned by Nick Saban in '99, but still held a respectable record of 4-2. Michigan looked to retain the Paul Bunyan Trophy after winning it back from the Spartans in 2000. The game would be a back-and-forth affair, and the outcome wouldn't be decided until the final
home-cooked controversial second.
On the opening drive, MSU stalled on Michigan's 31-yard line, but instead of kicking a field goal, the Spartans ran a fake punt. The Wolverines would get called for interference on wide receiver Charles Rogers, the star of Michigan State's offense at the time (and well before he became affectionately known as "Puff" Rogers to Detroit Lions fans). State quarterback Jeff Smoker would hit Rogers for a touchdown a couple of plays later, giving the Spartans an early 7-0 lead. However, Michigan would cut into the deficit on the ensuing drive when kicker Hayden Epstein booted a 57-yard field goal, the longest in Wolverine history.
Early in the second quarter, following a missed Michigan State field goal, Michigan quarterback John Navarre drove the Wolverines 67 yards on eight plays, ending the drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass to give Michigan its first lead at 10-7. But the Spartans would respond immediately on their next drive as running back T.J. Duckett cut through the Wolverine defense, capping the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run to give Michigan State the lead back. However, once again, the Wolverines would counter on the ensuing series, driving 80 yards to give Michigan a 17-14 halftime lead.
In the third quarter, the game quieted momentarily and the only points put on the board came via a Spartan field goal that tied the game at 17. Heading into the fourth quarter, both teams looked for the final points to ensure their victory. The Spartans would strike first, kicking another field goal with 7:33 left to play. After doing nothing on their next offensive possession, the Wolverines defense would get lucky as Smoker fumbled the snap at State's 38 yard line with six minutes remaining. Michigan would recover and quickly score on a pass from John Navarre to backup quarterback Jermaine Gonzales, who lined up as a fifth receiver on the play, giving the Wolverines a 24-20 lead.
Now, for the reason why the game is called "Clockgate." With a little over two minutes remaining, the Spartans pinned the Wolverines deep in their own zone, forcing a weak punt from Michigan. State would get excellent field position at Michigan's 44-yard line. However, even with a short field, the drive wouldn't be easy for the Spartans. Unfortunately, every time State looked to be down and out, Michigan opened the door and let them back in. On their first series, Smoker would get sacked twice and throw an incomplete pass, leading to a 4th and 16 from midfield. Smoker threw another incomplete pass on 4th down, but the Wolverines were called for grabbing the facemask of Charles Rogers: new life for Michigan State. The Spartans would drive into the redzone, but faced another 4th down at the 11-yard line. Needing only four yards for a first down, the Spartans would gain eight, putting them three yards out of the endzone. State would spike the ball on first down to stop the clock. On the next play, Smoker rolled to the right and ran for a yard. With time running out, the Spartans hurried to spike the ball. They did and the clock had one second remaining. Smoker would toss the ball into the back of the endzone on the final play of the game, finding Duckett for the game-winning touchdown.
Whether or not the clock ran out is still up for debate. Many blame "Spartan Bob" (MSU's time keeper) for some home-cooking in the final seconds. But even so, Michigan blew chance after chance on State's final drive to keep them from scoring. And the controversial ending did have implications beyond the rivalry. For the 2002 season, the Big Ten changed its timekeeping policy by requiring a neutral official on the field to keep time rather than a person chosen by the home team up in the booth.
The loss removed Michigan from the National Championship picture and led to a disappointing end to a season with a promising start. The Wolverines would finish 2nd in the Big Ten and ranked #20 at 8-4, with losses against Ohio and in the Citrus Bowl against Tennessee. Similarly, the win wouldn't help the Spartans much, as they finished 8th in the Big Ten at 7-5. Make your own conclusions on "Clockgate" and the final second here.
"Braylonfest" on October 30th, 2004, Michigan 45 - Michigan State 37 (3OT)
Angels' Night Devil's Night '04, Braylon Edwards and the Michigan Wolverines caused a bit of mischief and stole a game from the Spartans. The Wolverines were, again, in the middle of a dominant Lloyd Carr-era stretch after winning the Big Ten title in the previous season. They entered the game ranked #12 at 7-1 and had won the last two meetings against State since "Clockgate" (including the 49-3 bludgeoning that occured in '02). On the other side, the Spartans came into the rivalry game stumbling at 4-3 under second-year head coach John L. Smith. But the game ended up being a game that Michigan State should have won. However, Michigan star Braylon Edwards, who chose to come back in '04 for his senior year rather than declare for the NFL draft, had different plans and carried the Wolverines to victory.
The Spartans scored first on a 72-yard run by running back DeAndra Cobb, and the teams would trade rushing TDs - Michigan's by running back Mike Hart and State's by quarterback Drew Stanton - to end the quarter at 14-7 MSU. The scoring in the 2nd quarter was minimal as each team kicked a field goal; the bigger storyline of the 2nd quarter was Drew Stanton. Stanton - State's offensive leader - had to leave the game after separating his right shoulder. After halftime, nothing would happen in the 3rd frame and the score remained 17-10 Michigan State. It was in the 4th quarter when things got exciting.
Looking to close out the Wolverines, Michigan State scored ten unanswered points to start the 4th quarter, giving them a 17-point lead at 27-10. With 8:35 remaining, the Wolverines would drive 86 yards in a little under two minutes and kick a field goal. On the ensuing kickoff, Michigan recovered an onside kick after the ball bounced off of a Spartan. Enter Braylon Edwards.
After recovering the ball, Michigan's drive would last only two plays, capped by a 36-yard touchdown catch by Braylon Edwards. Michigan quarterback Chad Henne simply heaved it up to Edwards as Henne got hit, and Braylon ripped the ball away from the Spartan defender for a score. The crowd went nuts and the Wolverines were ready to take control of the game. After stopping the Spartans on the next drive, Michigan got the ball back with 3:18 left to play. Just like the last drive, this one would last only two plays, ending on another touchdown catch by Braylon Edwards. This time it was shorter - 21 yards - but the play looked almost the same. Henne, once again, tossed it up for Braylon to go get and he did. On both touchdowns, Edwards abused one-on-one coverage. See the first touchdown here and the second here.
Before overtime, Michigan State had a chance to win the game with a field goal after Michigan was called for pass interference as time expired. However, the Spartans would miss and the game would continue into OT. The first OT saw both teams kick field goals and the second OT saw both teams score touchdowns. Re-enter Braylon Edwards. In the third OT, Edwards would catch the game-winning touchdown for Michigan on a slant route over the middle. While it wasn't as flashy as the first two touchdowns, his third touchdown put the finishing touches on an unreal individual performance during an unbelievable comeback. Check out highlights here.
After the win, Michigan would go on to finish ranked #12 at 9-3, share the Big Ten title with Iowa, and lose in the Rose Bowl to Texas. The Spartans would flounder after the loss, losing three of four to finish the season at 5-7.
"The Origins of Little Brother" on November 3rd, 2007, Michigan 28 - Michigan State 24
2007 marked the 100th meeting between Michigan and Michigan State. Moreover, for Wolverines, the 2007 season was Lloyd Carr's swan song, and for Spartans, it was Mark Dantonio's debut. Michigan was about to lose one of the most successful coaches in team history, while Michigan State was getting introduced to their best coach in almost two decades. Unfortunately, Carr stumbled out of the gate on his farewell tour, losing to Appalachian State - the first FBS team to lose to an FCS opponent - in the season opener in a game fans still can't stomach remembering, and followed it with a blowout loss - the biggest loss at home in Michigan history - against Oregon (Note: Even though it was less than six years ago, I have to be honest in saying that I attributed the demoralizing App. State loss to Rich Rod and his gang. I completely forgot that Carr was responsible. So sorry Rich, I shouldn't have been trying to add more horrendous losses to your record. Trauma made me misremember.). However, the Wolverines would right their ship, winning seven straight before facing the Spartans. Over in East Lansing, Michigan State waited for Michigan with a nothing-too-special 5-4 record, but with positive attitudes since two losses were in OT and the other two were against ranked opponents by a combined margin of 10 points. So even though Michigan had won five in a row against the Spartans, the Wolverines had their work cut out for them.
The Spartans would score first on a 36-yard field goal early in the 1st quarter. But the Wolverines, led by Chad Henne, would respond with 14 unanswered points on two passing touchdowns. Going into the locker room, Michigan led 14-3. After halftime, the Spartans would pound the Wolverines on the ground in the 3rd quarter, rushing for 137 yards and one touchdown. Michigan State would add two more unanswered touchdowns to start the 4th quarter, giving them a 24-14 lead with 7:40 remaining in the game. On Michigan's ensuing drive, the game seemed to turn even more in State's favor as it appeared the Henne rolled his ankle stepping on a teammates foot. But he only missed one play, in which backup quarterback Ryan Mallett fumbled the snap and Mike Hart picked it up. Henne would come back and drive the Wolverines into the endzone, cutting State's lead to three with 6:47 remaining. The Spartans would go three-and-out on their next drive, and Michigan would get the ball back with 4:28 left. It wouldn't take long: nine plays later, the Wolverines were in the endzone via a pass from Chad Henne to Mario Manningham. Now leading 28-24, the Wolverines would let Michigan State drive down to the Michigan 34-yard line before the Spartans turned the ball over on downs to end the game. Check out the entire game (Part 1 and Part 2) or shorter highlights here.
After winning his final game against State in comeback fashion, senior Mike Hart commented on the intensity of the Michigan State crowd in the 4th quarter. Thus, Michigan State being called "Little Brother" was born:
I was just laughing. I thought it was funny. They got excited, it's good. You know, sometimes you get your little brother excited when you're playing basketball and stuff. Let 'em get the lead, but then you just comeback and take it back.
After hearing Hart's comments, Mark Dantonio would fire back, adding to the new intensity of the rivalry due to State's insulting moniker:
I find a lot of the things they do amusing. They need to check themselves sometimes. But just remember, pride comes before the fall...This game is an important game...they can print that crap all they want all over their locker room. It's not over. It'll never be over here. It's just starting...I'm going to be a coach here for a long time. It's not over. It's just starting.
The win helped Michigan finish second in the Big Ten, and #18 overall at 9-4. They would win in the Capital One Bowl against Florida to salvage Lloyd Carr's final season that saw the Wolverines stumble historically out of the gate. The Spartans, on the other hand, finished a respectable 7-6 in Dantonio's first season, losing in their bowl game against Boston College. It was State's first winning record in three seasons and set the team up for the success in the coming years.
"Michigan's 900th Win" on October 20th, 2012, Michigan 12 - Michigan State 10
Coming in the 2012 game, Michigan State had taken the last four against Michigan, their longest winning streak since before Bo coached the Wolverines. Aside from the crushing OT loss in '09, the Wolverines weren't playing the Spartans well at all, losing without much of a fight in '08, '10, and '11. In 2011, State was at the top of the Big Ten even though they lost in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game that year. Meanwhile, Michigan saw a revival under first-year head coach Brady Hoke, who led them to an important victory in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech that all but erased the Rich Rod years from the record books and the mind's of fans.
I was able to go to this game, and needless to say, I was excited beyond words. Besides the fact that it ended up being Michigan's 900th Win and the game that ended State's streak against the Wolverines, it was only the second Michigan game I've seen in person. My dad never really liked the idea of bleacher seats and 100,000+ fans, so we never went when I was younger. We're also die-hard Lions fans and had season tickets up until last season. My dad always said that watching the Lions fail was enough; he didn't need to root for another team that'll just end up crapping out. So anyways, I never went to a game until the 2011 Ohio game, and the 2012 Michigan State game was number 2 for me. It wasn't a pretty game; heck, it wasn't even all that exciting at times, even though it was Michigan vs. Michigan State. But as a fan, you're always into this rivalry game, even if you're team's only kicking field goals, because no matter what, no matter how ugly the game, a win is a win.
And that's what Michigan got in 2012: a win against Michigan State. Did we dominate the Spartans? Not even close. But did we win and end their winning streak against us? You bet. Does it mean bragging rights until the 2013 game? I'm not shy in reminding Spartans fans of the game, and I hope you're not either.
The game was a battle of who could eke out the other on the scoreboard. The defenses dominated the game, illustrated by only one touchdown being scored: a 2-yard pass from Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell to tight end Paul Lang. Denard Robinson never had the space to do his thing, but he did just enough to put Michigan in field goal range on multiple occasions. His top target, receiver Drew Dileo, caught only four passes on the day, all of which came on scoring drives, and most notably, on the game winning drive. The game looked all but over after the Spartans pulled off a successful fake punt late in the 4th quarter that led to a field goal and a 10-9 Michigan State lead. But State couldn't run out the clock on their next possession, and they couldn't stop the Wolverines on their ensuing drive. Starting the drive with 2:00 minutes at their own 38-yard line, Michigan would drive down the field and Denard would hit Drew Dileo for a 20-yard pass to set up Brendan Gibbons's 38-yard game-winning field goal. Denard says he didn't watch Gibbons on the final play, he "just took a knee and prayed." I didn't watch it either; I put my face on girlfriend's shoulder and let the crowd give me the answer. The fans stormed the field to celebrate both a win over Michigan State and Michigan's 900th win all-time, the most in college football history. Watch the highlights here and listen to the song that cycled through my head after Dileo's critical performance. Thanks for that game Drew, or as people like to call you, Mr. Get It Done.
After the game, both teams finished worse than they did in 2011. Michigan ended with a better overall record at 8-5, but blew the Outback Bowl against South Carolina. The Spartans finished at 7-6 with B-Dubs Bowl victory over TCU.
This year, Michigan will look to retain the Paul Bunyan trophy in East Lansing after losing the last two away games against the Spartans. I'm looking forward to another classic this fall. A Michigan blowout victory sounds nice.