By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 2, 2013
EAST LANSING — Of all the sacks in Michigan State’s 29-6 dismantling of the Michigan football team on Saturday, two stood out as especially demoralizing. And there were quite a few sacks to choose from in the team’s worst loss to its in-state rival since 1967.
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Redshirt junior Devin Gardner was sacked on Michigan’s first possession. On the second drive, the Spartans got to him again. He was sacked twice more on the third drive of the game — four sacks in the first three possessions for a total loss of 28 yards. Michigan allowed a total of seven sacks on the game.
But as Michigan State’s defense besieged the Wolverines’ offense, the Spartan offense plodded its way to mostly field goals. And so with 2:08 remaining in the third quarter, Michigan trailed by just 10 when junior cornerback Raymon Taylor seemed to make a momentum-changing interception. His pick gave Michigan’s offense the ball in enemy territory, the 41-yard line, for the first time all game. A field goal would make it a one-score game.
And then, more sacks. On second down, Gardner was sacked to knock Michigan out of Spartan territory. The Michigan State defense celebrated 15 yards upfield, and Gardner was slow to get up. When he did, he held his knee, then stood on the 42-yard line, awaiting the play call. He limped to the huddle.
Michigan called timeout. Spartan Stadium exploded.
But the break changed nothing. Denicos Allen and Ed Davis sacked Gardner again, this time for a loss of seven yards. Michigan lost 21 yards after the interception. The quarter expired, and Michigan punted.
After the game, fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan’s face was bloodied from a lingering cut, as it has been after most games this year. This time, it seemed fitting. All week, Michigan’s players talked about being bullied by Michigan State in 2011. At his press conference, Lewan blew a lock of bloody hair out of his eyes and said this year had the same feeling. On the opposite side of the stadium, Allen was gloating.
“Two years ago wasn’t nothing,” he said. “It was worse today, and I think they felt it.”
After the sack, Gardner lumbered slowly to the sideline, where Michigan coach Brady Hoke patted him on the back. The offensive line made for the bench. Fifth-year senior right tackle Michael Schofield slammed his helmet on his knee.
Michigan State scored on the next possession. The extra point was no good, but it didn’t matter: Michigan trailed 22-6 in the fourth quarter, and the Spartan defense was in control.
The loss all but ended Michigan’s hopes for its first Big Ten title in nine years. Another Michigan loss or Michigan State win eliminates the Wolverines from the Legends Division race.
“It’s not in our hands,” Hoke said. “But you don’t know — unless you’re forecasting for us now. Who knows?”
Michigan’s interior offensive line has been a weakness all season, and the Spartans own the inside-run game. Still, nobody could have predicted the futility in the ground game. Fourteen negative plays put the Wolverines’ rushing total at -48 yards. It was the worst rushing performance in Michigan’s 134-year history.
On one particularly brutal drive, the Wolverines advanced the ball into Spartan territory. On the next play, a snap went over Gardner’s head to set up second-and-30. Following a sack on third-and-29, Lewan picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and junior punter Matt Wile was forced to kick out of his own end zone. The punt didn’t make it past the first-down marker.
Michigan held the Spartans’ offense in check for much of the game. Mostly, they wore down the Wolverines’ front with runs and then exploited a leaky secondary to slowly accumulate field goals.
After a 49-yard Wile field goal opened the scoring in the first quarter, the teams traded field goals in the first half until Michigan State’s Connor Cook found Bennie Fowler in the corner of the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds remaining in the half to give the Spartans a 13-6 lead. Michigan State opened the second half with a 35-yard field goal to go ahead by 10, and Michigan couldn’t muster a score.
Michigan State’s defense didn’t surprise anyone. Michigan knew it would blitz through the A-gap often and constantly pressure Gardner, but there was little the Wolverines could do.
“When it came down to it, we couldn’t pick it up,” Lewan said.
Michigan has now gone two games without a touchdown against Michigan State.