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B1G Historical Perspective: Earning a Rematch

The 1987 Michigan State Spartans opened their season with a prime-time win against USC. An undefeated streak following a 1-2 start earned them a rematch with the Trojans in the 1988 Rose Bowl.

Michigan State tailback Lorenzo White in the 1988 Rose Bowl
Rod Sanford / Lansing State Journal

On Labor Day night 1987, I tuned into rare ABC prime-time College Football game from my dorm room at the University of Maryland. The USC Trojans had traveled to East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans. That night I watched Lorenzo White and company lead the Spartans to a 27-13 victory against the #16 ranked Trojans. There weren’t a lot of passes thrown in this game; as Southern Cal ran their traditional ‘student body right’ and ‘student body left’ offense, and Michigan State relied on their ground game as well.

Michigan State appeared to be a challenger to Michigan and Iowa for the Big Ten title. However, the George Perles’ Spartans lost their next to games – at #9 Notre Dame and at home against #6 Florida State – by a combined score of 62-11. (As an aside, note Michigan State’s nonconference schedule for 1987: Southern Cal, at Notre Dame, and Florida State.) As it turned out, that September 26 loss to the Seminoles would be the last game Michigan State would lose for the rest of the season.

It certainly looked like a 1-2 start could easily become a 1-4 start, as Michigan State [editorial - had to fix that faux pas] had 2 more ranked teams to finish off the first five games of their 1987 season: a trip to Iowa City to take on Hayden Fry’s #17 ranked Hawkeyes, and Bo Schembechler’s #12 Michigan Wolverines making the trek to East Lansing.

The Spartans’ turn-around began in Iowa City with a hard-fought 19-14 victory against Iowa. Following this victory, Michigan State defeated Michigan 17-11 in East Lansing. A 38-0 win against Northwestern in Evanston got Michigan State to 4-2. However, the momentum from these 2 victories over ranked teams appeared to be lost when the Spartans played visiting Illinois to a 14-14 tie; with a trip to #15 Ohio State coming up next.

Michigan State linebacker Percy Snow
USA Today Sports

Michigan State instead began a winning streak after a 13-7 victory against Earle Bruce’s Buckeyes. Wins against Purdue, #16 Indiana, and Wisconsin got Michigan State to an 8-2-1 record, but more importantly earned the Spartans the outright Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl. In the 1988 Rose Bowl, Michigan State got a rematch against Southern Cal. And just like in the season opener Labor Day weekend, the Spartans knocked off the Trojans 20-17 (the Big Ten’s first Rose Bowl victory since 1981, and just the second since 1974).

Head Coach George Perles utilized the same approach with Michigan State that his mentor Chuck Knoll used with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Specifically, a power running attack featuring tailback Lorenzo White; and a stunting 4-3 defense put in place by Defensive Coordinator Nick Saban (yes, THAT Nick Saban).

The 1987 season would be the high-water mark for head coach George Perles. Michigan State won a share of the 1990 Big Ten title (in a 4-way tie with Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan). However, just several years later Perles was fired amid an NCAA investigation into the Michigan State program (Michigan State was placed on NCAA probation, but Perles was eventually cleared of any wrong-doing). But these events do not diminish Michigan State’s 1987 Big Ten title and 1988 Rose Bowl Victory.

Michigan State Defensive Coordinator Nick Saban (left) and Head Coach George Perles (right)
Michigan State Photo

Historical Perspectives

Northwestern - The Upset

Purdue - The Forward Pass Comes to the Midwest

Indiana - The Real Game of the Century

Nebraska - Surrender Whites