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Rivalry games are stress-inducing enough on their own. Every play feels more meaningful and consequential than the average match.

Add to the equation that Michigan State goalkeeper Owen Finnerty transferred from the Michigan men’s soccer team less than a year ago, and the stage was set for his emotions to negatively impact his play.

But Finnerty was up to the challenge. He held his former team scoreless as the Spartans (3-4-2 overall, 1-0-1 Big Ten) defeated the Wolverines (3-5-2, 1-2-0) Tuesday night in East Lansing, 2-0.

“I think we let ourselves down a little bit tonight,” Michigan coach Chaka Daley said. “We certainly carried more of the proceedings than our opponent.”

A mere seven minutes into the game, a diving header from forward Grayson Mercer — off a gem of an assist from defender Nick Stone — gave Michigan State a 1-0 lead. 

But despite that early goal — and what the final score may seem to indicate — the Wolverines dominated possession and generated the majority of the offensive chances throughout the match. Michigan outshot the Spartans by six and earned five more corner kicks. Yet, the Wolverines couldn’t capitalize.

“We did get to the final third numerous times, more times than I can count,” Daley said. “We have to take the opportunities that are presented to us with a little bit more of a cool head because we certainly created enough to win the game tonight.”

Freshman forward Nick Kaloukian catalyzed the promising yet fruitless Wolverine attack. In the 46th minute, a header of his skimmed inches high of the net. Shortly after, a strike from his right foot nearly snuck in the near post. 

“He is a little bit disappointed with what he thought was his lack of production for goals,” Daley said. “But I have no doubt he’ll get his just due not only this year but in his career at Michigan.”

Finnerty was determined to ensure that Kaloukian’s “just due” would not be served on his watch. Intent to keep his past teammates out of the scoring column, the former Wolverine tied his season high in saves en route to his first clean sheet of the 2022 campaign. Finnerty’s excellent performance served as the latest entry in Michigan’s expanding pattern — the Wolverines have been held without a goal six times in ten games this season.

Daley declined to comment on the keeper’s performance. 

The contest was riddled with stoppages of play and whistles, defined by penalties and players being acquainted with the turf. The in-state foes combined for 30 fouls called and seven yellow cards distributed. Among them was Michigan junior defender Jans Hoff, who in the 89th minute — well after the result of the game was determined — shouldered Finnerty to the ground following a corner kick save, much to the dismay of the Spartan defenders. 

“With a good crowd, I think that heightens the emotions a little bit,” Daley said. “These games have always been hotly contested and competitive. … I don’t think there was anything offsides or malicious in nature.” 

The Wolverines’ goalkeeper situation was a stark juxtaposition compared to Michigan State’s. Junior Ethan Wood earned his second start of the year — in lieu of sophomore Hayden Evans, who played all 90 minutes in last Friday’s victory against Northwestern. Daley commented that the competition is ongoing and yet to be won by either player. 

Wood failed to register a save in the contest — certainly not an ideal performance for a veteran entrenched in a battle for the permanent starting spot.

The insurance goal came courtesy of freshman Johnathan Stout, whose initial shot was denied by the post, but the forward was able to hustle and get his own rebound, bending the ball into the bottom right corner — effectively clinching the first Spartan victory in the rivalry since 2017. 

After the final whistle, Michigan State students — the overwhelming majority of a season-high crowd attending the game — rushed onto the field, flags flying behind them and celebratory smoke filling the air as complementary chants of “Go Green” and “Go White” echoed throughout the stadium. 

As Finnerty posed for pictures with elated Spartan fans, his past squad headed back to Ann Arbor, searching for answers as their offensive stagnation continues.