Michigan out-gained Michigan State by 154 yards.
Column: MSU chops its way through adversity to take down No.6 Michigan
The Woodshed, which had been rocking all day, was brought to an eerie silence on junior quarterback Cade McNamara’s best game as quarterback for the Wolverines.
Everything that could go right for the Wolverines happened for the first 40 to 45 minutes of the game.
Despite controlling the game almost the entire time, Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines returned to Ann Arbor without the Paul Bunyan trophy and an 0-2 record against Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker at MSU.
Michigan State was dominated by its rivals for most of the afternoon on its home turf and still figured out how to pull out a 37-33 victory over No. 6 Michigan to remain undefeated; the final undefeated team in the Big Ten.
How did Michigan State manage to do it with the odds stacked against them?
“I just knew, keep choppin',” junior running back Kenneth Walker III said. “We go over it every practice, every game. This is our motto, to keep choppin', so I know that was gonna be all we had to do.”
Michigan State’s mantra “Keep Choppin” was on full display as the team overcame a 16-point deficit in the final 19 minutes of the game to keep its perfect season alive and take down their rivals. The Spartans never stopped fighting, even when the odds were heavily in Michigan’s favor.
From the beginning of the season, Tucker and the players have repeatedly used the phrase “Keep Choppin” to describe how the team has fought through adversity and stayed focused with the increased spotlight.
Tucker said following the game that today was a perfect example of the commitment to “Choppin” and how it can power the team through any situation.
“Our guys who played out there, they're going to be better off because they decided to come here to East Lansing, Michigan State,” Tucker said. “And the things that they learn on the football field - on how to be resilient and keep Choppin’, handle adversity and things like that - It's going to serve them well out in the real world because it doesn't always go your way."
Michigan State had to show its resilience from the opening drive. After showing some success offensively to start, sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne threw a deep ball to junior wide receiver Jalen Nailor on third down, which was picked off by Michigan sophomore safety R.J. Moten. Three plays later, Michigan scored a 93-yard touchdown to take the lead just minutes into the game.
The resilience was not present from the Spartans immediately following the early blow. The next two possessions on offense were a three-and-out and another interception, this time on a tipped pass on the line of scrimmage.
Michigan took advantage of the uncharacteristic turnovers and jumped out to a 10-0 lead through the first quarter.
Michigan State started showing its first signs of life in the second quarter. Following senior kicker Jake Moody’s first field goal to put Michigan up 10, MSU marched 75 yards in five plays to score a touchdown to make it a 10-7 ball game.
After another Michigan field goal, MSU continued to show why they were 7-0 coming into today. MSU scored again on its next drive on another Walker touchdown run, his second of the game, to take a 14-13 lead early in the second quarter.
The Spartans, though, did not keep up the breakneck speed offensively after its first two touchdowns from Walker. Michigan answered with a touchdown of its own following MSU’s to retake a 20-14 lead and tacked on a last-second field goal to take a 23-14 lead into halftime.
Spartan Stadium was in shock following the dominant first half from the Wolverines. Michigan played like the better team for the first 30 minutes and it didn’t seem like MSU could do anything to slow them down.
The hushed atmosphere continued deep into the third quarter as Michigan continued to build on its lead. The Wolverines scored on its second possession of the half with another third-down conversion to take a 30-14 lead, with 6:47 left in the quarter.
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Tucker said that he knew the team was still in the game despite being down 16.
“Oh, I said we're still in it,” Tucker said when asked how he responded to the 16-point deficit. “There's no such thing as a safe lead in college football. The games, they go forever, the clock stops all the time. It's just a matter of executing.”
Tucker’s words were reflected in Michigan State’s play for the rest of the game after Michigan’s last touchdown. From that moment to the final whistle, Michigan State out-executed Michigan and outscored them 23-3 in the final 19 minutes of the game to escape with a four-point victory.
The turning point of the entire game came on MSU’s following drive. Facing a fourth and four from Michigan’s 29, MSU’s offense stayed on the field. Thorne found junior wide receiver Jayden Reed on a fade for a 28-yard gain to Michigan’s one-yard line. Walker punched it in and Thorne connected with redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tre Mosley on the two-point conversion to cut it to a one-possession game.
The resilience was also complimentary between the offense and defense, just what Tucker wants from the team. After struggling to get off the field all day on third down, MSU got a key stop on third down. After struggling to generate pressure all day, a well-timed corner blitz from walk-on sophomore defensive back Justin White forced a bad throw from McNamara and a punt from Michigan.
MSU took over at its own 14 at the start of the fourth quarter with an eight-point deficit staring them in the face. MSU began marching down the field before facing a third and three at its own 42. The Spartans turned to Walker, who had all three of MSU’s touchdowns to that point, to get the first. Walker did much more than that, as he’s one to do, and turned a five-yard gain into a 58-yard touchdown run after making two defenders miss in open space.
In a matter of six minutes of game time, Michigan State scored 16 points and squared the game at 30.
Michigan State was able to find a way to steal a victory, again, from the jaws of defeat. Just over a month after MSU stole a victory from Nebraska on some late-game heroics, they did it again against their undefeated rivals.
The story of the day was Kenneth Walker, who scored all five of MSU’s touchdowns and put his name in the annals of MSU football history along with other Michigan-Michigan State heroes like Jalen Watts-Jackson and Larry Caper.
Walker did much more than that though. Today’s performance all but guaranteed that Walker will be a Heisman Trophy finalist; MSU’s first finalist since running back Lorenzo White in 1987. Michigan State’s fight back into the game was a joint effort from the players, but its best player led the way from the backfield.
Today was just yet another example of Michigan State finding a way to win. After all, that’s what good teams do.
The Spartans were outplayed for a majority of this afternoon’s game but found a way to pull ahead in the final moment. This time, it did not take trickery on a punt to force overtime (Nebraska) or a trick play and unreal catch from Thorne (Indiana) to be the difference.
Today it was the historic performance of its Heisman finalist in the biggest game of the year. It was what Michigan State needed to pull out a victory with its back up against the wall. Michigan State is undefeated two-thirds of the way through its schedule and it's because of one reason: they never stop choppin’.