Sunday, April 21, 2024

Wolverines past pain for Spartans

Senior defensive back Tyrell Dortch, center, celebrates with freshman defensive back Sir Darean Adams on Oct. 17 during MSU's 51-17 defeat of Minnesota at Spartan Stadium. —

Even when the annual Michigan-MSU rivalry has Big Ten title implications, as it does this year, there's always room for verbal jabs.

"I don't like none of them over there," senior bandit Tyrell Dortch said. "I'm pretty sure nobody in green likes any of them over there."

For the Spartans, No. 12 U-M (7-1 overall, 5-0 Big Ten) usually brings out strong emotions, but a strong performance on the field is less reliable.

MSU has beat U-M only twice in its last eight tries. The last win was in 2001, when Jeff Smoker found T.J. Duckett in the end zone for the winning touchdown with zero time remaining on the game clock.

With a 3-1 Big Ten record so far, MSU head coach John L. Smith is leading the Spartans (4-3) into this rivalry as legitimate contenders for the conference championship.

"They have opportunities to be the Big Ten champions," U-M head coach Lloyd Carr said. "Anybody that's got one loss is right in the thick of this race."

MSU was in a similar, if not better, position last year when it brought an unblemished 4-0 Big Ten record into this rivalry game.

The Spartans lost 27-20 to U-M last year, then lost their next two games and fell out of the conference championship picture.

Although the Spartans haven't won many games against U-M recently, the controversial win in 2001 - U-M fans claimed the game clock should have expired before Smoker began the game-winning play - is proof the Wolverines can be toppled.

That win is the overwhelming choice for "most memorable moment against Michigan" among the older Spartans who were involved in the program in 2001.

But that was in East Lansing, and beating U-M at Michigan Stadium, where Saturday's game will be played, is historically tougher on MSU. The Spartans have not won there since 1990.

For the Spartans to end that drought, they will have to be strong against the Wolverines' running game, which has been rejuvenated recently by freshman running back Michael Hart.

In the MSU-U-M rivalry, the team that has gained more rushing yards has won 34 of the last 36 games.

Hart, a true freshman, is one of two Big Ten backs with 900 or more rushing yards. His 206-yard rushing performance in the 16-14 win against Purdue last week pushed his season total to 936 rushing yards.

Hart's emergence has especially impressed Dortch, who said Hart is a better running back than former Wolverine Chris Perry. Perry rushed for 219 yards on 51 carries against MSU last year.

"Michael Hart is better than Chris Perry, coming from me," Dortch said. "He's a receiver, he can run the ball, he's got moves, he's got a little power. I respect Perry, he did a lot last year, but I think Hart has more dimensions to him."

MSU has a dangerous running game of its own, with the league's second-best rushing offense, averaging 212.9 yards per game.

U-M senior cornerback Marlin Jackson said he noticed the improvement of MSU's offense with sophomore Drew Stanton at quarterback.

"That is always a challenge for a defense, going against a quarterback that can run as well as pass," he said. "He can drop back, and you can have everybody covered, but he can take off at any time."

It is debatable which team has a better chance of winning the crucial rushing battle. There's no doubt this game will affect both teams' conference title aspirations.

"It should be a great game and we're looking forward to continuing the fight for the Big Ten Championship," Carr said.

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