Sunday, February 25, 2024

Wolverines take bragging rights, 27-20

Michigan defensive back Prescott Burgess, right, and running back Pierre Rembert, bottom, take down junior running back DeAndra Cobb Saturday at Spartan Stadium. Michigan beat MSU, 27-20. —

In a rivalry game with bragging rights and possibly the conference title on the line, Michigan's surprising rush-oriented offense dominated MSU's defense, handing the Spartans their first conference loss.

The two highly ranked Big Ten powers, which both feature two of the nations top offenses, played as polar opposites Saturday as the No. 11 Wolverines (8-2 overall, 5-1 Big Ten) toppled the No. 9 Spartans (7-2, 4-1) 27-20 at Spartan Stadium.

"It was real difficult (to stop the run) because we were expecting them to come out and pass," MSU sophomore cornerback Darren Barnett said. "And we didn't expect them to come in here and pound it down our throats. We couldn't adjust right."

The Maize and Blue fended off a last second attack from the Spartans after chipping away at MSU's 14th-ranked rush defense. Senior tailback Chris Perry led the way for the Wolverines, averaging 4.3 yards on a school-record 51 carries. Perry ran for 219 yards and the game's first touchdown to open the second quarter.

The Spartans offense sputtered along in the first half, managing only three points on a 20-yard field goal from junior kicker Dave Rayner, his 12th straight, while senior quarterback Jeff Smoker completed only 10 passes in the first two quarters.

MSU finally found some success with a 73-yard pass from Smoker to sophomore wide receiver Agim Shabaj for a touchdown with 3:58 left in the third quarter. The Spartans trailed 20-10 at that point after Michigan senior quarterback John Navarre hooked up with senior tight end Andy Mignery for a touchdown on the previous series.

The Spartans were able to muster one more touchdown after the defensive line's only real pressure on Navarre. After junior bandit Robert Flagg sacked Navarre and forced a fumble, junior defensive end Clifford Dukes recovered it and ran 65 yards into the end zone. This put the Spartans behind by seven points after another Wolverine touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter and a 31-yard field goal from Rayner.

But it was too little too late as the MSU offense was unable to produce at the end of the game after dropping balls and Perry running the clock down.

On the final play, Smoker heaved a Hail Mary pass that sealed the game for the Wolverines, as U-M junior linebacker Scott McClintock picked off the ball in the end zone, putting an end to the Spartans five-game win streak, undefeated conference record and Smoker's streak of four games without an interception.

"He looked like he had caught (the ball)," Smoker said, describing the final pass to sophomore receiver Aaron Alexander, "I thought he (caught it), but unfortunately he didn't."

Smoker said the Wolverines ability to keep the ball out of his hands was key to the loss and lack of offense.

"They wanted to keep the ball out of our hands and they did that," Smoker said.

U-M held the ball nearly twice as long as the Spartans, with just over 39 minutes of total possession compared to the Spartans 20:22.

But the Spartan players and head coach John L. Smith said they'll just put the loss behind them and show up ready to work hard over the next week as they prepare to travel to Ohio State.

"It's tough (to forget about this game) it's our big rival," senior offensive lineman Paul Harker said.

"It's the game that all the fans and media pump up as the biggest game of the season, but it's over now, we lost the game. We've got to treat it like any other game and forget about it - we've got to set out sights on Ohio State."

Smith said the team "made too many mistakes" in the "chess match," yet "fought hard" at the end, but will focus on the Buckeyes now.

"It's a team effort, we all lost that game, from the coaching staff, to offense, defense and special teams," Smith said. "We just have to comeback (with a) renewed effort tomorrow and get to work for Ohio State and move on."

The Spartans lost leading tackler Eric Smith, a sophomore strong safety, with a sprained shoulder and junior defensive tackle Greg to a leg injury during the first half.

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