With less than two minutes remaining in the first quarter and Michigan State already ahead 7-0, the Wolverine football team needed some momentum.
They got it from the referees.
After Michigan free safety Stevie Brown recovered a Spartan quarterback Brian Hoyer fumble at the Michigan State 18-yard line, the Wolverines had a prime opportunity to tie the game. On third down and 11, redshirt freshman quarterback Steven Threet threw a 19-yard pass to junior running back Brandon Minor in the front left corner of the north end zone. Minor caught the ball in the air before his right foot touched the goal-line pylon and he fell out of bounds.
The Michigan student section closest to the goal line was slow to react, and the field referees ruled it an incomplete pass.
After review, the call was overturned and the play was ruled a touchdown to put Michigan on the board for the first time.
“Obviously, he must have scored,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “He came off, said he hit the pylon. I’m glad he did. They reversed it. That’s why they have replay.”
Section 2, Article 1b of the 2008 NCAA Football Rules and Interpretations states that “a player or an airborne player who touches a pylon is out of bounds.”
“The play was, he caught the ball in the air, touched the pylon first, and was out of bounds,” referee David Witvoet confirmed after the game through the Michigan Athletic Department.
When told that the touchdown call contradicted the rule, Witvoet said, “I can’t really tell you anything else.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said he agreed with the original call on the field.
“When they showed the replay, nobody in the stands thought he was inbounds because we didn’t hear a big roar,” Dantonio said. “I’m just glad we won the football game, so we don’t have to deal with that.”
Off target: Though Michigan State’s sloppy play in the first half initially kept the game close, Threet’s three interceptions were what partly prevented the Wolverines from gaining offensive rhythm throughout the game.
The Michigan offense was stagnant in the first quarter, tallying just 39 passing yards and scoring its only touchdown on the pass to Minor after recovering a Spartan fumble.
And Threet’s statistics only worsened with five minutes left in the first half and the game tied at seven. Threet threw a 33-yard pass to fullback Mark Moundros that was intercepted by Spartan safety Marcus Hyde, giving Michigan State the ball at the Michigan 41-yard line. The Spartans missed a field goal on the ensuing drive to keep the game tied.
“That’s just mistakes by me,” Threet said. “Not putting the ball where it needs to be, sometimes trying to force it too much, just a matter of making better decisions and getting guys the ball.”
But Threet’s most deflating pick came in the fourth quarter. On Michigan’s first offensive play after the Spartans took a 28-21 lead, Threet threw a 13-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Toney Clemons, who was completely covered by the Spartan defense. The pass was picked off by Spartan cornerback Chris Rucker and Michigan State scored on its next drive to break the game open.
Late in the game, the Spartans intercepted another Threet pass before Michigan right guard David Moosman forced a fumble 16 yards later.
Threet had just three interceptions on the season before doubling his total Saturday.
“Inconsistent like it always is,” offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said sharply when asked about Threet’s play. “We just gotta get better. That’s it.”
No good: Michigan State kicker Brett Swenson entered Saturday’s game with a program-record streak of 15 consecutive field goals made, a streak that was fourth-best in Big Ten history.
That meant his first missed field goal against the Wolverines seemed like a fluke. His second could be considered uncharacteristic.
But after missing a third straight field goal, his performance could be described as simply disastrous.
The Spartans’ kicking woes started with eight minutes left in the second quarter on a 50-yard attempt. With the wind to his back, Swenson’s kick fell short.
Five minutes later, Michigan linebacker John Thompson blocked Swenson’s 32-yard attempt. Michigan sophomore cornerback Donovan Warren tried to make a play but picked the ball up and fell, giving the Wolverines no yardage on the return.
Warren said his choice to pick up the ball in the end zone was “instinctive.”
“I see the ball on the ground, try to pick it up and make something happen,” Warren said. “I shouldn’t have touched it, they said, but being me, I seen the ball on the ground and I just tried to do something with it.”
After Swenson missed a 24-yard attempt wide left with 7:48 left in the third quarter, Dantonio decided not to take any more chances with his usually-reliable kicker.
Though he insisted Swenson’s track record Saturday didn’t affect the Spartans’ decision to go for it on a critical fourth-and-1 late in the fourth quarter, it likely made the decision easier.
“We’d already missed a couple of field goals, bad snap, whatever the case,” Dantonio said. “Didn’t want it to come down to that.”
Injury update: Freshman running back Sam McGuffie was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with what Rodriguez called a “shot to the head.” McGuffie was hit hard on a Wolverine third-and-seven and fumbled. Though Michigan State gained possession, Michigan recovered the ball on the next play to set up its first touchdown of the game.
“They got him,” running backs coach Fred Jackson said. “They got him. That’s why he didn’t know if he had the ball or didn’t.”
Redshirt freshman safety Michael Williams also left the game with a confirmed concussion.