Today was a beautiful, cloudless, crisp October day in Chicago. Then again, it could have been raining frogs, and it still would have been a beautiful day. Because Michigan State defeated the University of Michigan in football by a score of 28-14.
That marked the fourth consecutive win for our Spartans over the arch-rival Wolverines, the first time that Michigan seniors have failed to beat Michigan State at least once since the Class of 1962. When the 70-something members of that MSU class get together for a 50th reunion next year, they can salute this year’s team. Good times!
The object below (photo credit: Eric Seals/The Detroit Free Press) is the Paul Bunyan Trophy, which has been awarded to the winner of the Michigan State-Michigan game every year since 1953, when MSU officially joined the Big 10 Conference. As my friend and classmate Jeff Smith wrote today on Facebook, the old lumberjack is going to have to pay property taxes on account that he has now resided full-time in East Lansing for the past four years.
Now it would be easy to slip into spiteful, trash-talking bitterness toward our vanquished cross-state opponents.
My association with Michigan State goes back to my freshman year in 1973. MSU’s era as a national football power, which lasted into the late 1960s, already was a fading memory, and Michigan — which was one of the original collegiate powerhouses, so long ago that its fight song could refer to the school as the “champions of the West” — had returned to glory.
My first rivalry game was a bad omen: Michigan led 31-0 at halftime (also the final score) in a game played at Spartan Stadium in a relentless, cold downpour. I never saw the Spartans beat the Wolverines while I was a student, in the midst of a streak that saw Michigan win eight in a row and 13 out of 14 through 1983. We had to eat a lot of, um, crow, in those years, accompanied by repeated, though extremely outdated, references by Wolverine fans to Michigan State as a “cow college” and “Moo U” (the land-grant school was once known as Michigan Agricultural College).
And as recently as 2007, Michigan running back Mike Hart took the occasion of Michigan’s come-from-behind 28-24 win in East Lansing to belittle MSU as U of M’s “little brother.” That Wolverine win, which occurred in Mark Dantonio’s first year as MSU’s head coach, capped yet another six-game Michigan winning streak in the rivalry. It turned out to be the last to date, though. Hart’s little condescending cheap shot appeared to light a fire under the Spartans. They won by 35-21 in Ann Arbor in 2008, pulled out a 26-20 overtime thriller in 2009, won again on the road by an impressive 34-17 score in 2010, and then again doubled down on Michigan today at home.
But I recently addressed the subject of sportsmanship in light of the New York Yankees’ early dismissal from the baseball playoffs. So while it is tempting to shout “Boo-ya” at any passers-by wearing Michigan garb, or to point out the brief, injury-plagued and mediocre professional career that Mike Hart had with the Indianapolis Colts, I will choose to focus on the positive — namely the vast improvement that Coach Dantonio has instilled in the Michigan State football program.
What Dantonio has accomplished in turning around the Spartans’ defensive play in just five years is nothing short of remarkable. His predecessor, John L. Smith, was a talented offensive coach, but the team’s defense during his tenure was a bad joke. The 2006 team, the last that he coached, went 4-8 and gave up 341 points in 11 games, yielding 40 or more points twice, 30 or more points in another four games.
By contrast, this year’s team came into today’s game with the number-one ranked defense in college football, and that is still something for us veteran Spartan fans to wrap our minds around. The team is 5-1 overall — that’s more wins halfway through this season than the team won all season five years ago — and 2-0 in the Big 10 with wins over longtime tormentors Ohio State and Michigan.
And in half a season, MSU has given up a mere total of just 65 points.
Most importantly today, the Spartans for the second straight year contained Denard Robinson, Michigan’s super-athletic quarterback. Perhaps more dangerous as a runner than a passer, Robinson was held to 42 yards in 18 carries today. He also had a wretched day throwing the ball, completing 9 of 24 passes for 123 yards. He did make the game a little scary close with a touchdown pass after an MSU fumble in the fourth quarter, but he gave it back with an interception that MSU defensive back Isaiah Lewis ran back 39 yards for a game-clinching touchdown with about four and a half minutes remaining.
The only downside for me, and it’s a very tiny one, is that the win is going to cost me a few bucks. This was the game in which the Spartans showed up in those green-black-and-bronze promotional Nike “Combat” uniforms. I thought, and still think, that those unis were an ugly and unnecessary break with our green-and-white traditions. But the players seemed to love them, so I pledged to buy one next week when I’m in East Lansing for Homecoming, if they inspired the Spartans to beat the Wolverines today. And so I will.
Our opponent next Saturday night is Wisconsin, an undefeated national championship contender which, thus far this year, has been playing scary good football. But the Badgers haven’t come close to playing a team with as strong a defense as MSU’s.
Am I predicting that we will shock the world and upset Wisconsin next week? I won’t go that far. But can Michigan State, playing on their home turf, where they haven’t lost since the 2009 season, beat Wisconsin if the Spartans play their very best?
Yes, we can.
For the record, here’s how it looked outside in Chicago today. Weather details tomorrow. Enjoy the after-party, Sparty!