Michigan State came into this weekend’s game against Michigan looking to turn its season around. Sitting at 3-4, head coach Mel Tucker and his Spartans were looking for a spark, a moment to galvanize both a team and an increasingly frustrated fan base. And what better way to do so than bring to an end its hated rival’s undefeated season. Yet despite having two weeks to prepare for Michigan, Tucker and the Spartans had no answers for the Wolverines, and in the end, lost more than just a game.
The Wolverines dominated the Spartans in the trenches, on the stat sheet and ultimately on the scoreboard. Michigan outrushed Michigan State 276-37 and won the time of possession battle by more than a 2:1 edge. Michigan started somewhat slowly, but finished strong, leaving no question which was the better team.
Michigan’s slow start made for a somewhat tenuous first half for a home crowd primed for a big win, but while Michigan didn’t exactly run away from Michigan State, it was never really in trouble either. Watching the first half of action, you got the feeling that Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh knew he had the better team and decided that playing things close to the vest offensively would reduce the chances of making mistakes, and over the course of the game, his Wolverines would have their way with the Spartans.
Give Michigan State credit, though. The Spartans opened the game playing well. Quarterback Payton Thorne, who’s struggled much of the year and has endured the wrath of much of Spartan Nation, played what was probably his best half of the season, completing ten of 13 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. Thorne was helped considerably by receiver Keon Coleman, who has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s most explosive players, but Thorne still did what was necessary to keep the Spartans in the game.
Thorne and the Spartans could only stay with the Wolverines for so long, however. And as the game progressed, junior running back Blake Corum tore up the Spartan defense on one side of the ball and Michigan’s defense stifled Thorne and the Spartans on the other side.
How dominant was Michigan in the second half? The Wolverines held the Spartans to just 63 total yards and one first down over the game’s final 30 minutes. Michigan State’s first four possessions of the half ended in three-and-outs. Its fifth and final possession ended in an interception.
Michigan was led once again by Corum, but it wasn’t his 177 yards or two touchdowns that summed up his impact, but rather his ability to repeatedly break tackles and extend plays. For the season, Corum is second in the nation in rushing touchdowns (14) and fourth in rushing yards (1,078).
It there was a disappointment for Michigan, it was that too many of its drives stalled in the red zone, ending in field goals rather than touchdowns. It was the continuation of a trend that’s plagued Michigan throughout the season. “We’ve got to get better in the red zone,” quarterback JJ McCarthy conceded after the game. “We know that.” Corum agreed with his young signal caller, adding, “We should have scored more, yeah.”
While Michigan needs to convert more of its drives into touchdowns, the Wolverines are fortunate to have perhaps the best kicker in program history at their disposal to clean up their mistakes. “The offense’s best friend,” is how McCarthy described kicker Jake Moody, and Moody was certainly that Saturday night. If there was a player who rivaled Corum’s impact on the game it was Moody, who converted all five of his field goal attempts, including a career-long, 54-yarder that had plenty of leg to spare. On a night Michigan had trouble cashing in, Moody made sure its drives didn’t come up empty.
Coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Spartans last season in East Lansing, Saturday’s victory should have left Harbaugh and the Wolverines in good spirits. But unfortunately, the end of the game didn’t mark the end of the evening.
If Michigan State didn’t show much fight on the field, it did after the game. Shortly after the game ended, multiple videos began to surface showing groups of Spartan players kicking, punching and swinging helmets at solitary Wolverines. On his national radio show, ESPN alum Dan Patrick described the scenes as, “A bunch of cowards at Michigan State.” The Detroit News’ Bob Wojnowski wrote, “There aren’t many acts more cowardly than multiple people attacking one.” If you’ve seen the videos, it’s hard to argue with either assessment.
Michigan State’s Tucker had little to say about the incident after the game, but given time and the appearance of additional videos, Tucker changed course. Both Tucker and university president Samuel Stanley have since apologized for the incident and vowed to take the appropriate action. The extent of that action remains to be seen, but little can be done to erase the images seen on those videos.
For Michigan State, it was another chapter in a season that has gone from frustrating to embarrassing. For Michigan, the march to Columbus continues.
Editor’s note: I wanted to limit this article to what happened on the field, and I still tried to keep the focus there. But to be at the post-game press conference, and to be a part of the surreal scene that unfolded when word of the videos started coming out, to ignore what happened in the tunnel would have been disingenuous.