Smash right through that line of blue, watch the points keep growing!
The Paul Bunyan Trophy will be staying in East Lansing for another year after Michigan State beat Michigan in a heart-stopper in overtime, 26-20. Former Spartan greats T.J. Duckett and Jeff Smoker, the heroes of 2001, were on the sidelines to witness another classic rivalry battle.
Four quarters of football wasn't enough to separate the two rivals, but it only took one Spartan possession in overtime to end it.
Larry Caper ran 23 yards into the end zone, breaking several tackles along the way, to give Michigan State back-to-back wins in the series for the first time since 1965-1967.
The win moves the Spartans to 2-3 (1-1 Big Ten) on the season, and drops Michigan to 4-1 (1-1 Big Ten.)
Through the first three and a half quarters, these two teams looked vastly different than they had in the buildup to the game. Two teams with suspect defenses were coming up with big stops and creating turnovers. This was a much lower scoring affair than anybody had predicted.
Then, with about five minutes left in the game and leading by two touchdowns, the Michigan State defense began giving up big plays for the first time all afternoon. You could hear the collective groan of Spartan Nation as they watched their defense struggle yet again. Freshman quarterback Tate Forcier led scoring drives of 69 and 92 yards in those final minutes to come back and force overtime.
The Spartan defense was on its heels.
Michigan took the first snaps of overtime, and looked to be driving for a score yet again. It was then that Chris L. Rucker, the most unlikely of heroes, stepped up. Forcier tried to force a pass through tight coverage into the end zone. It was deflected, and Rucker snagged the ball out of the air. The Spartans would need only three points to take home the victory.
After a nine-yard loss by Glenn Winston, and an 11-yard completion to B.J. Cunningham, the table was all set for some Brett Swenson heroics. Run the ball to the middle of the field to set it up, make the kick, game over.
Larry Caper had other ideas though.
On third-and-eight, Caper took the handoff and rushed off the right end. He had picked up more than enough to give Swenson a great shot at winning, but he kept running. Right through Wolverine tackles. He didn't stop until he reached the end zone. Game over, let the celebrations ensue.
The play preceeding the last few minutes of regulation and overtime was fairly spectacular as well. Both defenses trading big hits and key stops, something they hadn't done regularly all season long.
Look at the numbers. Michigan came into this game leading the conference in rushing at well over 200 yards per game. Michigan State held them to a measly 28 yards on the ground, with most of those coming in the late stages of the fourth quarter.
The Spartans came in averaging over 300 yards passing per game, and a porous Michigan secondary figured to be vulnerable. Thanks to an excellent pass rush, the Spartans were held to just 220 yards through the air. The rush even caused two interceptions, with a Kirk Cousins pass being tipped and the line and another throw taken off target thanks to a big hit by Craig Roh.
The game was won by an unlikely source—the Spartan ground game. Coming into today, they were 10th in the Big Ten in rushing offense, at roughly 117 yards per game. Thanks in no small part to some long runs by Cousins—including a 41-yarder—the Spartans picked up 197 yards on the ground and used that to win the time of possession battle 2:1.
It was easily the best performance of the season by the Spartans, who came to play on both sides of the ball. A 1-3 team backed into a must-win game is a very dangerous animal, and the Wolverines learned that the hard way.
The Spartans were whistled for four personal fouls, but at least one was a bad call. Rod Jenrette was flagged for a late hit when the receiver he tackled was still on his feet and still fighting for yards. The blown call didn't end up costing MSU any points, but it was undeniably awful.
Grading the units
Spartan offense: B
At times, this group looked like it was firing on all cylinders. At other times, especially toward the end of the game, they struggled to pick up first downs and keep the clock moving. The wide receivers and tight ends did an admirable job making catches and moving the chains, but there is still some work to do in the running game. Glenn Winston was stopped at or behind the line too often for anybody's liking.
On the other hand, with a hobbled Kirk Cousins, Keith Nichol came in and did a good job of managing the game. Yes, he made some throws that were a bit wild, but he didn't make any major mistakes. And remember, he's the guy who hit B.J. Cunningham on second down and 19 to set up Larry Caper's game winner.
Spartan defense: B+/A-
Without the last five minutes of regulation, this is a definite 'A+' effort from one of the most heavily-criticised defensive units in the country. Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown couldn't do anything all afternoon, and the front four got good pressure on Forcier and Denard Robinson all afternoon without having to blitz too often.
The last five minutes showed that issues in pass coverage still haven't been sorted out entirely. Darryl Stonum's 60-yard touchdown catch would have been just a 26-yard gain had Kendell Davis-Clark or Rod Jenrette managed to make a tackle. And blown coverage by Jeremy Ware allowed Michigan to tie the game with two seconds left on the clock.
But, credit to the defense for rebounding in overtime and forcing a crucial interception. They stepped up with the game on the line and made the big play to get the win.
Spartan special teams: A
Aaron Bates' booming 52-yard punt with three minutes left to play looked to have pinned Michigan back in an impossible situation, at their own eight-yard line. You can't reasonably expect a punter to do much better than that in the field position battle.
Brett Swenson answered the bell as well, converting both of his field goals as he continues to be Mr. Automatic in the kicking game.
While Cousins didn't put up the gaudy numbers that many were expecting, he still made a number of huge plays that helped decide the game. He picked up first downs with his feet, taking the Michigan defense by surprise. In the first quarter, his run to the goalline set the stage for Larry Caper to punch in a touchdown on fourth down. His seven rushes for 75 yards led the Spartans.
Only 13 carries for 39 yards, but he had the biggest carry of the whole day with his 23 yard touchdown run in overtime. Caper also scored the first touchdown of the afternoon, and every week looks more like a star in the making.
MSU defense, especially Greg Jones and Chris L. Rucker
Jones played a great game like he does every week. He was in on a few sacks and never allowed Forcier to get comfortable. Rucker came up with a few big tackles as well as the crucial interception at the end of the game.
Michigan defensive line
A good pass rush created two interceptions. Brandon Graham also came up with a big stop near the goal line that forced Michigan State to take a field goal instead of a touchdown.
Alright, I'm impressed. Despite an inauspicious start to the game, Forcier showed a lot of mettle in leading his team back to tie the game with just a couple of seconds left in regulation. Serious points for showing that sort of mental toughness.