MSU football sends message in 35-11 defeat of in-state rival U-M
The game against Michigan is always one of, if not the biggest, game of the year for MSU.
Regardless of the records, rankings or lopsided predictions, MSU players and coaches considered this week the most important game of the season for many different reasons. As senior wide receiver Tony Lippett said, it’s bringing Paul Bunyan “back to the crib.”
However, this year was different for MSU because they were expected to win, and win convincingly against hated in-state rival Michigan. And while it felt different at the beginning of the week, the result was still the same as recent years at the end of the week.
MSU (7-1 overall, 4-0 Big Ten) never trailed on Saturday, handling U-M (3-5 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) in an easy, 35-11 win from Spartan Stadium. The win improved MSU’s home winning streak against U-M to four games and marked the sixth time in the last seven years that the Paul Bunyan Trophy will reside in East Lansing.
“We’re out here trying to win every game, (but) this game just means a little bit more,” senior free safety and team captain Kurtis Drummond said. “It’s all about bragging rights, and who owns this state. To win this game we’re definitely excited, we won’t underplay it at all. We’re all very excited.”
Pride at stake
If there ever could be any more bad blood between the two rivals, U-M found a way to add to it before kickoff on Saturday.
Right before the opening kickoff, U-M junior linebacker Joe Bolden stabbed a tent spike into the field of Spartan Stadium. U-M head coach Brady Hoke issued a statement on the incident on Sunday, stating the stake was used during a Friday night meeting as a motivational tool and a team leader elected to bring it on the field.
The stake ultimately turned into a motivational tool for MSU, instead of U-M.
“Everyone saw when they ran out and stuck the dagger on our grass and disrespected us right out of the gate,” junior quarterback Connor Cook said. “We weren’t having that.”
MSU certainly was fired up immediately after the incident, driving down the field on the opening possession to take a lead they would never surrender.
The spearing incident not only resulted in more motivation early on, but at the end of the game as well. After recovering an onside kick with 3:39 left in the game and leading 28-11, MSU could have easily ran out the clock and took a knee to finish the game.
However, head coach Mark Dantonio wanted to make a statement. Dantonio kept his foot on the gas pedal, electing to continue running the ball aggressively in the final minute. The attack resulted in a touchdown by senior running back Jeremy Langford with 28 seconds left in the game.
Dantonio said afterward that the stake incident was disrespectful to MSU and served as reasoning for the late game call to continue scoring.
“I felt like we needed to pop one, I felt like we needed to drive a stake through them at that point,” Dantonio said. “The little brother stuff, all the disrespect, it didn’t have to go in that direction. We’ve tried to handle ourselves with composure. That doesn’t come from the coach, that comes from the program.
“Throwing the stake down in our backyard back here and coming out there like they’re all that — it got shoved the last minute and a half and we weren’t going to pull off of that.”
Domination on the ground
Entering the week, it was well known how important it would be for MSU to establish the run.
The winner of 41 of the previous 44 games between the in-state rivals was also the winner of the ground game. MSU added to that streak on Saturday, outrushing U-M 219-65.
MSU’s rushing attack was led by Langford, who racked up a career-high 177 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries. All of Langford’s touchdowns came from within the five-yard line, consistently plowing over Wolverine defenders throughout the afternoon.
Following the game, co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Dave Warner said he didn’t realize the large number of carries Langford got, but felt like he had the hot hand on Saturday.
“Jeremy is playing at a high level, a lot similar to last season, when the Big Ten season rolls around he turns it up,” Warner said. “He had a great game, he has been playing good the last couple of weeks.”
On the other side of the ball, MSU’s defense was again able to hold U-M to under 100 yards on the ground. U-M’s leading rusher, sophomore running back De’Veon Smith, had only 39 yards, and MSU’s defense never surrendered a run longer than 13 yards on Saturday.
Despite giving up a late touchdown for the first time in three years against U-M, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was proud of his defense’s performance against U-M, stating not only did the unit contain the rushing attack but the passing as well.
“Our kids played tough all day,” Narduzzi said. “I think we gave up less than 200 yards. Any time you do that, against any offense, I don’t care who you’re playing, that’s a good thing.”
Seniors going out on top
For 17 MSU seniors, they’ll remember walking off the field their final time against U-M hoisting Paul Bunyan.
With another dominating victory against the Wolverines, this senior class will finish with a 3-1 record against U-M. During the stretch, MSU outscored U-M 102-43, with the lone loss coming in 2012 in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Senior defensive end Marcus Rush was caught holding up the Paul Bunyan Trophy after the game on the field and considered the win a special one that he’ll never forget when his playing days are over.
“It means everything,” Rush said on getting the victory in his final game against U-M. “It’s amazing to walk out of here at the end of the year knowing we beat them again. I won’t have to look back and think about losing to Michigan when I’m older. It’s something special for sure.”
Similar to Rush, senior linebacker Taiwan Jones was all smiles after the game knowing he’ll have another win over U-M under his belt.
Jones was nearly ejected from the game after he was called for a roughing the passer and targeting penalty in the second half. The play was reviewed and the targeting penalty was overturned by the officials so Jones was able to remain in the game.
He said tears nearly came to his eyes during the post-game review as he realized he might not be able to finish his final game against U-M, but luckily the play was overturned.
“Thirty years down the line I can say I beat Michigan in my last time playing,” Jones said.
Looking ahead to Ohio State
While Saturday’s victory over U-M will not be forgotten by players, coaches and fans anytime soon, MSU’s next challenge could stand as the program’s biggest game in recent memory.
MSU has next week off with a bye, but the following week, No. 13 Ohio State comes to town for what will serve as a de facto Big Ten East Division championship game. The matchup could also determine MSU’s College Football Playoff chances, with a loss eliminating MSU from the conversation .
Ohio State will most likely enter the game undefeated in league play — Buckeyes are heavy favorites next week against Illinois — and potentially ranked in the top 10. Junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun said MSU will go over game tape from U-M before transferring the focus to Ohio State, but the magnitude of that matchup is still understood.
Dantonio jokingly said he’ll find out in a couple of weeks whether or not it was a good time to have a bye, but regardless the Ohio State game will serve as the next crucial step in MSU’s chase for another Big Ten championship.
“We are eight games in and going into the stretch of November when you have to make a championship run,” Dantonio said. “First one up is Ohio State so that will be a test for us. We still have four games to go, and all of them will be exciting and great games.”