BY STEPHEN J. NESBITT
Daily Sports Editor
Published October 15, 2011
EAST LANSING — Masked by flashing strobe lights and dense clouds of fog, the Michigan State football team bolted onto the Spartan Stadium grass brandishing a sleek, ultra-modern look.
The Spartans’ Nike pro-combat uniforms — complete with black pants, dark green tops and bronze helmets — were meant to be the highlight of the rivalry tilt between No. 11 Michigan and No. 23 Michigan State.
But when the Wolverines crowded into the tunnel just seconds later, they stole the show, donning all-white jerseys, the complementing road alternates to the legacy jerseys worn for the Under the Lights game against Notre Dame.
It was the first indication of the one-upmanship that would prevail throughout Michigan State’s 28-14 victory — the fourth-consecutive defeat of rival Michigan (2-1 Big Ten, 6-1 overall).
Though the final score suggests otherwise, the game was in line for a classic last-minute finish. But the Wolverines ran into the Spartans (2-0, 5-1) — or more specifically, their cornerback Johnny Adams.
Trailing 21-14 and facing a 4th-and-1 from the Michigan State nine-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, offensive coordinator Al Borges made the call: play-action fake to the halfback.
The Spartan defense set up in the “Green Pony” set.
When junior quarterback Denard Robinson turned away from the handoff, Adams — the “Pony” — broke loose knocked him back halfway to Tuesday.
“We’ve gotten many first downs with that play, same play, where the guy jumps and you send one guy in motion,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.
“I saw the 25-second clock rolling to zero. I think we got away with one, to be honest with you.”
In hindsight, a delay of game penalty would have been a gift.
After a Michigan State punt, Robinson had a chance at redemption.
He took the first snap, had a linebacker in his face, and threw a dart right on the numbers to cornerback Isaiah Lewis, who returned the only Michigan turnover of the day for a touchdown and a commanding 28-14 lead.
Robinson had blitzing linebackers in his face all day, and the numbers showed his struggle in the face of a rush. He finished the game with just 165 total yards.
“He made some things happen,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke of Robinson. “And there were a couple times …”
Hoke trailed off. It’s hard to describe a 9-for-24 passing outing.
“He always plays excited, with a lot of energy,” Hoke continued. “The interception, I don’t know what he saw, but I thought he held in there.”
Robinson held in there until he was knocked out of the game after a roughing-the-passer call on the Spartans.
“You don’t want to keep getting crunched by a 300-pound defensive lineman all the time,” said Spartan defensive lineman Jerel Worthy. “So when you go out there and you put two hits on him — being the hit that you put on him and you landing on him — it affects him a little bit.”
Robinson’s day didn’t end so comfortably, but in the day of the dueling uniforms, the Wolverines tallied first.
On the opening drive of the game, Robinson shook a defender in the backfield and scrambled for 15 yards into the endzone to finish an 80-yard drive.
But the highlight of the drive came two plays earlier when sophomore wide receiver Drew Dileo, the kick-team holder, ran a bootleg around the ride side on a fake field-goal attempt and stretched just inches beyond the first-down marker.
It wasn’t quite “Little Giants” — the name of Michigan State’s fake field goal call that toppled Notre Dame in overtime last season — but Hoke had cast the first stone.
“Anything you can do,” the fourth-down call seemed to indicate.
Michigan’s opening drive took over six minutes off the clock. Just like the legacy uniforms, it was old-school Michigan football — at first, anyway.
The Spartans struck back with a touchdown drive that took half as long as Michigan’s drive.
But nerves, weather and defensive pressure put the offensive outburst to rest. The swirling wind turned Spartan Stadium into a relative maelstrom.
Michigan’s offense went cold. After the opening-drive touchdown, seven consecutive drives ended in punts. Worse yet, though the field position was terrific, the last six punts came from inside Michigan State territory, just outside of field-goal range.
“We had a lot of opportunities to come back in the game and just keep the game within
reach, and we just didn’t execute,” Robinson said.
Not until early in the fourth quarter, nearly 45 minutes after Robinson’s opening score, did the Wolverines finish a drive with a score.
With 9:56 remaining in the game, trailing 21-7, Robinson found junior wide receiver Roy Roundtree on a slant. After a broken tackle, Roundtree went into the endzone to cap a seven-second drive and pull within a single score.
With plenty of time left, the Wolverines were barely one-upped — just seven points away.
But the vaunted Michigan State attack proved too powerful for Michigan’s offensive line. Robinson and sophomore quarterback Devin Gardner were sacked a season-high seven times.
“That’s just us being relentless,” Worthy said. “We tried to get as many hits on the quarterback as possible — whether it’s Gardner or if it’s Denard.
“Just go out there and show our dominance, man. When you can put a fear in the quarterback’s eyes, cause him to make mistakes ... we’ve got to get him rattled.”
Following the Roundtree touchdown, the Michigan defense forced a fumble and got the ball right back within striking distance of the endzone.
Then came Adams’s fourth-down sack of Robinson. Then came the interception. Then the final horn and raising of the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
In the end, the jerseys didn’t play a role in the outcome. And the Michigan offense did its best to be a non-factor.
“We gotta move forward and we gotta learn from this game, that’s the biggest thing,” Robinson said. “Play Michigan football and the Big Ten championship is still out there.”
Ultimately, the Spartans won the one-upmanship battle by claiming the Paul Bunyan Trophy for yet another season. And that feeling will last long after the season ends.
“For the rest of our lives, we’ll walk the streets of this state,” Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “For the rest of our life. It’s satisfying.”