Michigan vs Michigan State Football — Looking Back – 2007

Looking Back is a Special Feature Highlighting
Key Rivalry Games by Jeff Cummins

“Little Brother.”

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 jeffcummins@optonline.net.

Michigan vs Michigan State Football — Looking Back – 1978

In the late 1970s, the Michigan football program was riding high. Bo Schembechler was recruiting great players to Ann Arbor, and the Wolverines had just topped Notre Dame, in the first game played between those rivals in decades. The Wolverines were heading into the game against Michigan State with a perfect record and plenty of momentum.

Still, there was something wrong heading into that ’78 game, the fourth installment in this series on the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. The Spartans featured Kirk Gibson, a gritty, fiery wide receiver who went on to earn fame a decade later for hitting a walk-off home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first game of the 1988 World Series. It’s a little known fact that Gibson played college football before switching to baseball, and he could have easily played professional football, as well. At 6 feet, 3 inches and 215 pounds, Gibson was an imposing figure who possessed surprising speed and an almost irresistible force of will. That attitude made all of Gibson’s teams better, including the ’78 Spartans, who arrived at Michigan Stadium as underdogs who had something to prove. The Spartans knew that Michigan was coming into the game with an undefeated record, and they were acutely aware that Michigan had beaten them eight years in a row.

For Michigan, everything was going right, or so it seemed. Despite their success under Schembechler, the Wolverines of the 1970s had a maddening tendency to roll over all regular season opponents, except for one — and that one varied from year to year. In 1978, it was Michigan State.

Michigan largely held its own throughout the first quarter, allowing only a field goal. In the second quarter, the Spartans took control. Quarterback Eddie Smith found running back Lonnie Middleton all alone for a swing pass that went 13 yards for a touchdown. A touchdown was one thing, but players almost never got that wide open on a Wolverine defense that featured Ron Simpkins at linebacker. Things got worse for the Maize and Blue, as Mark Anderson intercepted a Rick Leach pass on the ensuing possession and returned it to the Michigan 20, where he was tackled by Leach. Four plays later, Middleton dove over the goal line from the 1-yard line and the Spartans were comfortably ahead, 17-0.

The Wolverines got back into the game on the first possession of the third quarter, as Harlan Huckleby carried eight times during a 70-yard drive, which culminated in a 3-yard scoring run by Leach to cut the deficit to 17-7. But on this day, there would be no heroic comeback for Michigan. Smith connected with Gibson for 15 yards on the first play of the drive, and on the eight play, Smith completed a pass to Mark Brammer, who broke a tackle and went 11 yards for the touchdown, putting Michigan State up, 24-7. Schembechler’s men played valiantly in the fourth quarter, but the Wolverines weren’t built to come back from such a sizable deficit, and they fell to Michigan State, 24-15.
Michigan State finished the season 8-3, while the Wolverines recovered very nicely, finishing the regular season 10-1, winning the Big Ten championship with a third consecutive victory over Ohio State. Unfortunately, the Wolverines lost to USC in the Rose Bowl, 17-10.

Following their college football careers, both Gibson and Leach played Major League Baseball together for three seasons with the Detroit Tigers. By 1984, Gibson was with the Blue Jays in Toronto; while Gibson and the Tigers went on to win the World Series that season. Leach has to wonder what it would have been like to be with the Tigers during that championship season.

It’s also fair to guess that Leach must have dreamed what might have happened if Gibson had played for Michigan instead of Michigan State. The Wolverines had plenty of talent on offense, with Doug Marsh and tight end and Huckleby at running back, among many other talented players. But Gibson would have Leach still another option, making the passing game stronger, and creating even more opportunities for Leach the ball carrier. Would Gibson have helped the Wolverines if he played for Michigan? Well, it’s reasonable to think that he would have led the Wolverines to a win over Michigan State, and it’s also a pretty fair argument that Gibson might have been the critical factor that would have pushed Michigan past USC in the Rose Bowl.

If only.

With few videos available on this, I’ve provided a link to the box score, posted on Michigan’s web site by the Bentley Historical Library, and I’m grateful for access to that box score. As always, I own none of this content.

Jeff Cummins may be reached at jeffcummins@optonline.net.


Michigan vs Michigan State Football — Looking Back – 1997

The third installment of the Michigan-Michigan State series takes us back to 1997. Most of us were just getting used to the Internet at that time, and many of us were enjoying the robust late 1990s national economy. For those of us in the Maize & Blue, it was the best of times, and, well…THE BEST OF TIMES! Sure, every Michigan fan and alum knew about the glorious teams of coach Fielding H. Yost and the “Mad Magicians” of coach Harry Kipke, but for many of us, this was the first time that we actually saw a Michigan team go the distance, finishing 12-0 with a Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl victory, and a share of the national championship.

That’s not to say the season was all easy sailing. There were some challenges along the way, and as we all know, any time the Wolverines are strong, it’s extra motivation for the Spartans, so nobody was overlooking that game when the Wolverines traveled to East Lansing on a gray in the middle of the season.

Sure, enough, the Spartans started off by giving the Wolverines fits. Late in the first quarter, Michigan State faked a field goal and holder Bill Burke jumped up and threw a pass to a wide-open Sedrick Irvin, giving the Spartans a 7-3 lead. Undaunted, Michigan went right back to work and made it pretty obvious that they were going to physically manhandle the Spartans all day. The Michigan defense harassed starting quarterback Todd Schultz relentlessly, forcing six interceptions, including two apiece by Charles Woodson and Marcus Ray. Woodson’s first interception was arguably the most amazing pick in college football history, as he leaped into the air, grabbed the ball with his right hand and came down with one foot in bounds. That the Michigan offense failed to capitalize on Woodson’s play meant little; the Wolverines had succeeded in demoralizing the Spartans. From that point, there was no doubt which team was in charge. If there was any disappointment for Michigan at all, it was that Tommy Hendricks had dropped an interception. Had Hendricks made the pick, every starting player in Michigan’s secondary would have had at least one interception that day.

Lost amid all the hoopla about Woodson’s electrifying first pick were dominating performances by both the Michigan offensive and defensive lines. The offensive line paved the way for Clarence Williams and Chris Howard to gash the Spartans’ defense, while the Michigan defensive line contested every play the Michigan State offense tried.
Thanks to ESPN and youtube poster WolverineHistorian for the footage. As always, I own nothing.

Jeff Cummins may be reached at jeffcummins@optonline.net.

Michigan vs Michigan State Football — Looking Back – 1990

The Gary Moeller era is probably one of the most underappreciated times in Michigan football history. Moeller succeeded his former boss, Bo Schembechler, but unlike most people who take over for living legends, Moeller produced teams that were pretty strong, and despite his exit in 1994, his era set many of the building blocks that would be in place when Michigan won the national championship in 1997 season.

Still, Wolverine fans will remember the 1990 season for one game, and particularly just one play: The failed 2-point conversion against Michigan State.

Elvis Grbac had just completed a fade to Derrick Alexander in the near corner of the north end zone to bring Michigan within one point. Moeller chose to go for two points, a move that Brady Hoke duplicated more than two decades later. As Grbac took the snap from center, receiver Desmond Howard cut inside on a slant pattern, where Michigan State defensive back Eddie Brown appeared to grab Howard’s waist with his left hand, and as Howard moved past Brown, the Spartan defensive reached with his right and appeared to trip Howard. Still, Howard got the ball, and appeared to land with the ball in his possession, but once he hit the ground, it squirted away.

At first glance, it appeared that 1) Howard caught the pass for a 2-point conversion, 2) Brown had committed a holding infraction against Howard, and 3) Brown had interfered with Howard on the play. Yet, none of those results were called. Instead, the officials ruled the play an incomplete pass. Twenty-four years later, this remains one of the most controversial and surreal plays in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, and in Michigan football history. Despite only taking a few seconds, the play almost seemed to unfold in slow motion. And the result seemed to proceed against all logic, with virtually every observer waiting for some sort of justice…that never occurred.

With six seconds left in the game, Michigan attempted an onsides kick, which worked when Vada Murray recovered in Michigan State territory, giving the Wolverines one final shot at victory. Rather than throwing a pass to the sideline to set up a field goal attempt, Grbac rolled out and launched pass toward the end zone, having narrowly escaped the clutches of the Michigan State defensive line. With a log jam in the end zone, Grbac’s pass was intercepted, and the Wolverines’ chances for victory were finished as well. Despite clearly coming down with the ball after having been held and interfered with, Howard’s catch was ruled incomplete, and the Spartans held on for a 28-27 victory.

Michigan finished the season 9-3, with a win over Ole Miss in the Gator Bowl. Still, few were smiling in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines lost to Iowa by one point just a week after they lost to Michigan State by one point, and any hopes for a Big Ten championship were finished.

As the years went by, Howard went on to become a Michigan Legend, having his jersey dedicated in a ceremony in 2011 in the first night game at Michigan Stadium. After leaving Michigan, Howard won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, adding a Super Bowl MVP trophy to his Heisman Trophy. Since retiring, he’s made a name for himself as part of the CollegeDay crew with ESPN. Derrick Alexander played nine years in the NFL before retiring. Elvis Grbac played nine years in the NFL as well, and has since returned to his alma mater, St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio, where he serves as an assistant quarterbacks coach.

Thanks to ABC Sports and youtube poster Stephen Barnett for the footage of the game. As always, I own nothing.Jeff Cummins can be reached at jeffcummins@optonline.net.



Michigan vs Michigan State Football — Looking Back – 1970

The ‘60s were a brutal time for Michigan football. With the political and social turbulence of the era, students often turned their attention to events other than football. Everyone liked the guy who coached the team, but the Wolverines played before a lot of empty seats in Michigan Stadium. Yes, I know that sounds familiar, but it all changed once Bo Schembechler was hired.

Sadly, while Bo conquered the enemy to the south in his first year, he didn’t conquer the enemy further up the road off I-96 West. Michigan State had fielded powerful teams for the better part of two decades, and the Spartans didn’t feel like welcoming Schembechler to the Big Ten with open arms. Being a resilient man, Bo made sure his Wolverines changed that in 1970.

Year 2 of the Bo era found the Wolverines hungry to beat a Spartan team that had been a thorn in their sides for nearly two decades. The Wolverines’ balanced offense kept State off balance all day, gaining a total of 460 yards in a 34-20 Michigan win. Billy Taylor carried 29 times for 152 yards and three touchdowns, while Don Moorhead completed 12 0f 19 passes for 156 yards and one touchdown. After spotting Michigan State a 7-0 lead, Michigan went on an 80-yard scoring drive, resulting in a touchdown when Taylor broke a tackle and went 26 yards down the left sideline for the tying score. With score tied 13-13 at halftime, Michigan broke the deadlock by giving the Michigan State defense a healthy dose of Taylor, who carried nine times on the first series of the second half, scoring from four yards out over right tackle to give the Wolverines a 20-13 lead. The drive was classic Bo, who let the offensive line impose its will on the Spartans. Defensive back Thom Darden intercepted a pass on State’s ensuing possession, giving Michigan the ball at the State 31. With the run firmly established, the offense returned to its balanced attack, and Moorhead connected with Fritz Seyferth on an 8-yard touchdown pass that put the Wolverines ahead by a comfortable margin.

Unlike many games between the Wolverines and the Spartans, the 1970 game was not controversial, and it wasn’t all that exciting, either. It was methodical, which was exactly what Bo had planned, and it marked the first of eight consecutive Michigan victories in the series, leaving no doubt that the Maize and Blue were in charge again.

Thanks to youtube poster Wolverine Historian, who posted the coaches’ film of this game. As always, I own nothing. Jeff Cummins may be reached at jeffcummins@optonline.net.