The fifth installment of the series on the Michigan-Michigan State football rivalry takes us back to 2007, at a time when that phrase, “Little Brother,” became a flashpoint of sorts in the rivalry. Michigan running back Mike Hart used the phrase after Michigan came back from a significant deficit to beat Michigan State, 28-24, in arguably the most compelling game in recent memory. Of all the games in the rivalry, this one seems to encapsulate all the emotions on both sides better than any other game in the series history.
In truth, Hart was merely repeating a phrase that Michigan State running back Javon Ringer used prior to the game. Unfortunately for the Maize & Blue, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, then in his first season, used Hart’s comment as ammunition to fuel the Spartans’ collective fire. Dantonio conveniently forgot that Ringer was the first person to use that comment, and mentioned Hart’s comment specifically, saying, “Pride goes before the fall.” Sadly for the Wolverines, Dantonio has proved to be a master strategist, capable of manipulating every emotion to make sure his team feels like an underdog that constantly has something to prove. Worse still, the Spartans have proved they are a serious contender in the Big Ten Conference, something that irks every Michigan fan and alum around the globe.
But in 2007, Michigan had started to play with a chip on its shoulder. After starting the season 0-2, the Wolverines picked themselves up and started playing gritty football, fighting with every fiber of their beings to overcome all the adversity they had faced earlier in the season.
In a sense, the Wolverines entered Spartan Stadium without the burden of playing in front of their home fans. The Spartans grabbed the early lead on a 36-yard field goal by Brett Swenson. Then the Wolverines went to work. At the MSU 49-yard line, Hart juked his way past the defensive line and rumbled 38 yards to the Michigan State 11. Then quarterback Chad Henne found receiver Mario Manningham in the corner of the end zone, and Michigan jumped ahead, 7-3. After Wolverines’ defensive back Jamar Adams intercepted State quarterback Brian Hoyer, Hart ran for another 32 yards, putting the ball at the Michigan State 10. Three plays later, Henne found Carson Butler for his second touchdown pass of the day, and Michigan took a comfortable 14-3 lead into the locker room at halftime.
In the third quarter, that comfort turned out to be fleeting, at best. Michigan State roared back, leaning heavily on bruising fullback Jehuu Caulcrick in short-yardage situations. With three running backs lined up in a Power I formation, Caulcrick banged over to give the Spartans their first touchdown of the day. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Hoyer connected with Kellen Davis for the go-ahead touchdown, and Michigan State led, 17-14. The Spartans then increased that lead Caulcrick went in for an easy touchdown, and the Spartans took a 10-point lead with only 7:40 remaining in the game. If the Wolverines were going to pull out a heroic victory, they had to start soon – even though they weren’t perfectly healthy. A hobbling Henne gave way to true freshman Ryan Mallett, who was promptly sacked by Michigan State, fumbling the ball in the process. Once again, Hart saved the Wolverines, scooping up Mallett’s fumble and running 11 yards for a first down, pushing Spartan defenders back in the process. Then Henne returned to the field, limping in Willis Reed-esque fashion, and suddenly Michigan started to play clutch football. Greg Matthews ran past a defensive back in the end zone to catch a 14-yard touchdown pass, and suddenly the Block M stood for Momentum. On the ensuing series, the Michigan defense finally stopped Caulcrick on a 3rd down and 2 yards to go, giving the Wolverines the ball back with plenty of time left on the clock. With the ball at the Michigan State 31, Henne faded back and looked deep for Manningham, who caught the ball falling down backward for the winning score. After that, Michigan’s defense pummeled the Spartans for four consecutive plays, and it was over.
Naturally, numerous players went on to play in the NFL, and after playing four years in the league, Hart chose to begin his coaching career. Hart was both popular and polarizing during his Michigan career, and he famously disagreed with comments that former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh made about the football program during Hart’s playing career at UM. Hart also alluded once to being the head coach at Michigan some day. Given his own track record of success against Michigan State, Hart would certainly get the Wolverines fired up to win that game. Would he be the perfect foil to Dantonio? It’s an interesting question, to say the least.
Thanks to ABC Sports and youtube poster WolverineHistorian for the footage of this game. As always, I own nothing.
Jeff Cummins may be reached at email@example.com.