EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - A penalty gave Michigan State first-and-goal from the 2, so for the next four plays, the Spartans gave the ball to standout running back LJ Scott.
Each time, Michigan stopped him.
The second-ranked Wolverines went on to beat their in-state rivals 32-23 on Saturday, and although the margin was a little slimmer than expected, there was plenty positive about the way Michigan played. Michigan State had won seven of the previous eight meetings, in many instances bullying the Wolverines physically, but Jim Harbaugh has already closed that toughness gap - and Michigan finally enjoyed a breakthrough on the scoreboard.
“Defensively, we made plays, guys made plays,” Harbaugh said. “Fourth-down stops were huge in the ballgame.”
The unbeaten Wolverines (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) were huge favorites against the Spartans, whose season had already unraveled. Michigan State (2-6, 0-5) didn’t wilt, though. Scott ran for 139 yards, and the offensive line had some success against the tough Michigan front.
Since Harbaugh’s arrival, however, the Spartans have had a hard time imposing their will against Michigan. They needed a shocking last-second touchdown to beat the Wolverines last year and had to grind just for a close defeat Saturday.
“There aren’t any moral victories,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “We’ve got to take it, but I think that you can feel good that you competed. You can feel good that things went this direction. You can feel good as a coach that we got an opportunity to win this football game.”
Michigan State delivered some bad news Sunday when the school said quarterback Brian Lewerke would miss the rest of the season with a broken leg. Lewerke has been mostly a backup, but he played well toward the end against Michigan. He is not expected to need surgery, and the Spartans expect him back for spring practice.
The challenge for Michigan State is to bounce back quickly from this season. The Spartans have joined the elite in the Big Ten by winning conference titles two of the past three years, but Harbaugh’s arrival has brought Michigan back to prominence and made the league tougher. It’s hard to attribute too much of Michigan State’s collapse this season to Harbaugh - the Spartans couldn’t even beat Indiana or Maryland - but every loss threatens to shift the balance even more from East Lansing toward Ann Arbor.
For years, Michigan State has relished its status as an underdog surrounded by glamor programs like Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame, playing some of its best football against those teams. It’s possible that after so much success, the Spartans lost a bit of that chip on their shoulder.
Michigan, meanwhile, is in the ascendency again, and the game against Michigan State didn’t need to be a blowout to be immensely satisfying for the Wolverines.
“It’s a rivalry game so when you go into games like that, records really don’t matter,” said Michigan receiver Amara Darboh, who had eight catches for a career-high 165 yards. “We understood that they were a good team.”
Michigan allowed an early touchdown, and with the score 7-7 in the second quarter, the Spartans went for it on fourth-and-1. Wolverines star Jabrill Peppers stopped Gerald Holmes.
Michigan led 27-10 at halftime, but an interception gave the Spartans a chance to cut into the lead early in the third. That’s when the Wolverines stood up to Michigan State on those four straight carries by Scott.
Every time the Spartans appeared to be building momentum, Michigan was there to push back.
“We treat every game like it’s the championship game and fortunately our guys made the play today and the credit goes to the players,” Harbaugh said after the game.
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