It was a game that lived up to the hype. A back-and-forth affair that had enough momentum shifts to keep each fan base on the edge of its collective seat all afternoon. In the end, after four lead changes, Michigan State prevailed. And in dramatic fashion. The Spartans not only overcame a 30-14 second half deficit, but scored 23 of the game’s final 26 points.
After the game, Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker said that at no time did he feel like his team was out of it. At no time did he feel overmatched. But that’s not to say it was easy for Tucker and the Spartans.
Michigan jumped to an early lead, forcing two turnovers and converting them into ten quick points. The first score was a 93-yard touchdown pass-and-run from Cade McNamara to freshman Andrel Anthony. The second, the first of four Jake Moody field goals.
And that was the story of the day for the Michigan offense. Too often settling for three points. Michigan moved the ball consistently between the twenties, but when McNamara and company got inside the red zone, they continued their season long struggle to finish drives.
Down 10-0, Michigan State quickly countered, putting together a five play, 75-yard touchdown drive, capped off by a 27-yard touchdown run by Kenneth Walker III. After Michigan added another field goal to extend its lead to 13-7, the Spartans struck again, this time converting a six play, 75-yard touchdown drive, capped off by another Walker touchdown run. The score gave Michigan State its first lead of the day at 14-13, and suddenly the home crowd was in full throat.
Then it was Michigan’s turn to counter. The Wolverines caught their breath and wrested back the lead with a pair of quick scores of their own, the first of which, a highlight-reel-worthy 19-yard touchdown pass from JJ McCarthy to Anthony. Michigan headed to the locker room with a 23-14 lead and extended its lead to 30-14 midway through the third quarter.
After the game, Michigan State’s Jayden Reed said even when the Spartans found themselves down 16 points, there was no panic. “We just kept chopping,” Reed said. Reed added that he and his teammates were confident that they would win the “championship rounds” of the game. That’s exactly what they did, scoring the game’s final three touchdowns.
For a defense that had played so well all season, Michigan had its share of issues in East Lansing. Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo kept pressure on Michigan State quarterback Peyton Thorne all afternoon, but little else went right for the Wolverines defensively. Most notably, the Wolverine defense was repeatedly caught trying to substitute defensive linemen on plays in which the Michigan State offense didn’t substitute. Gaffes that led to at least three plays in which Michigan had either too many or too few men on the field and wasn’t prepared for the snap. Stopping a player like Walker is difficult enough under the best of circumstances. Trying to do so with a defense that isn’t prepared is nearly impossible. “They got two touchdowns off of it (Michigan’s defense not being ready),” Hutchinson said after the game, “So yeah, that’s an area where we have to improve.”
And speaking of Walker, the Wake Forest transfer proved as good as advertised. The nation’s second leading rusher repeatedly gashed the Wolverines for big play after big play. “He’s a very good back,” Harbaugh said of Walker after the game, quickly correcting himself, “He’s a great back.” That he is. With 197 yards rushing, Walker single-handedly outgained Michigan’s tandem of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. Walker added five touchdowns for good measure.
Yet despite Walker’s big day, Michigan had its chances. Had more than its share, in fact. After the game, Michigan’s Andrew Vastardis said, “We made plays, they made plays. They made mistakes, we made mistakes.” Vastardis was right, but it was the Wolverines who made the costliest mistakes. Costly penalties, costly drops, costly muffed punts and costly turnovers. The backbreaker, a McCarthy fumble midway through the fourth quarter. It was the freshman’s second fumble on consecutive plays, and provided the final momentum shift of the afternoon. From that point on, instead of putting the game on ice, it was lights out for the Wolverines.
But as momentum-changing as McCarthy’s fumble was, it’s not fair or accurate to pin the loss on one play. Michigan lost because it’s offensive line couldn’t open holes for Haskins and Corum. It lost because Haskins and Corum couldn’t make something out of nothing. It lost because its offense couldn’t finish drives. It lost because its defense, so dependable all year, couldn’t stop Walker, couldn’t get off the field.
Tucker said that he talked to his team during the week about “competitive greatness,” which he described as, “Being at your best when your best is needed.” Outscoring Michigan 23-3 down the stretch, it’s fair to say that Michigan State played it’s best when its best was needed. As a result, Michigan State’s undefeated season continues, and perhaps as importantly, Paul Bunyan stays in East Lansing.