EAST LANSING, Mich. — Mark Dantonio has always embraced Michigan State’s rivalry with Michigan, but this week the confident coach took a fairly calm approach.
“Don’t worry about all the things that are being said — just keep your mouth shut,” Dantonio said. “Get ready to play, start the game and finish stronger than when you started. We were going to let the lion out of the cage at 3:30, and that’s what happened.”
Dantonio’s Spartans battered their biggest rivals for the full 60 minutes Saturday, and 24th-ranked Michigan State remained unbeaten in the Big Ten with a 29-6 victory over the 23rd-ranked Wolverines. Michigan was sacked seven times and finished with minus-48 yards rushing, the worst output in the Ann Arbor program’s lengthy history.
This after the Wolverines had vowed Saturday wouldn’t be a repeat of the game in East Lansing in 2011, when Michigan State’s physicality was too much for Michigan.
“Two years ago was nothing,” Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen said. “It was a lot worse today, and I think they felt it.”
Michigan State (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten) has won five of the last six meetings with the Wolverines (6-2, 2-2), and this was the Spartans’ most lopsided win in the series since 1967.
Connor Cook threw for a touchdown and ran for one, but this game belonged to Michigan State’s defense, which solidified its spot among the nation’s best with an overwhelming performance on a rainy afternoon at Spartan Stadium. Shilique Calhoun and Ed Davis had 2 ½ sacks each, and Allen added two more.
“We’re going to bully people — that’s the game of football,” Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. “We didn’t want any personal fouls — we had one stupid one, I think on special teams at the end — we talked really about not getting any penalties. … They’ve got a good football team, but we’ve got a great football team.”
Michigan State entered ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense, and the Spartans looked positively dominating for most of the game. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner was sacked four times in the first quarter, and things only got worse for the Wolverines on one drive in the second.
On first down from the Michigan State 49, a shotgun snap sailed over Gardner’s head for a loss of 20. After a sack on third down and a Michigan penalty, the Wolverines finally punted on fourth-and-48.
“A lot of negative yardage plays. There were some pretty good runs once in a while, but when you snap the ball for a 20-yard loss and get sacked I don’t know how many times, your yardage part of it isn’t very good,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “You put yourself behind the 8-ball, not executing and then you’re forced into doing things you don’t want to do.”
Thanks to the sacks and that bad snap, Michigan finished the first half with minus-41 yards rushing. The Wolverines’ best hope was for Gardner to look for big chunks of yardage on deep passes. He completed a few, including a 58-yarder to Jehu Chesson that set up a field goal in the second quarter.
With the score tied at 6, Michigan State’s slumbering offense finally broke through, driving 75 yards on 10 plays for the game’s first touchdown. It came on a 14-yard pass from Cook to Bennie Fowler with 23 seconds left in the half.
Fowler’s sliding catch came in the same back corner of the end zone where he was unable to hold onto a potential touchdown pass earlier in the quarter.
The second half was more of the same. Michael Geiger’s third field goal of the day made it 16-6, and the Wolverines were stuck deep in their own territory for much of the third quarter.
Michigan finally caught a break when Cook’s pass was intercepted by Raymon Taylor, giving the Wolverines the ball at the Michigan State 41. But that only gave the Spartans another chance to shine on defense.
“We’re excited to play, we’re excited to go out there,” linebacker Max Bullough said. “In those situations, they think they have the advantage. They think they’re going to score, it’s a momentum change for them. If we go out there and we stuff them, and we keep them out of even scoring a field goal, it’s double. It takes away theirs and it gives us momentum.”
Gardner lost 5 yards on what looked like a designed run, then Allen sacked him for a loss of 9. Michigan called a timeout, and several Spartans danced to the sideline, motioning for the crowd to make more noise.
Gardner was sacked again on the next play for a loss of 7, leaving the Wolverines punting on fourth-and-31 to start the fourth quarter.
Michigan’s previous low point for rushing was in 1962, when the Wolverines were held to minus-46 yards by Minnesota. The Wolverines have now lost 10 straight road games against ranked opponents — the last victory was in 2006 at Notre Dame.
The last team to be held to minus-48 yards rushing was actually Michigan State, which had exactly that total against Alabama in the 2011 Capital One Bowl.
This was Michigan State’s most lopsided win over Michigan since a 34-0 victory in 1967, right before the Wolverines gained the upper hand in this rivalry and held onto it for about four decades. The Spartans have certainly pushed back lately.
Cook’s 1-yard run in the fourth made it 22-6, and Jeremy Langford added a 40-yard scoring run in the final minutes.
Gardner was 14 of 27 for 210 yards with an interception. Cook was 18 of 33 for 252 yards.