Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer walked into the postgame press conference on Saturday, shortly after the Spartans beat the Michigan football team, 35-21.
A banner displaying block-‘M’s and Big Ten Network logos hung behind his seat, and Hoyer, who had just helped the Spartans secure their first win over the Wolverines in seven years, asked if he should take it down. Someone said yes, and the fifth-year senior turned around, but he decided against it when someone else told him not to do it.
It was good advice. Even after Saturday’s game, Michigan State hasn’t quite brought Michigan down yet.
You can’t lose six straight to your archrival, win on your seventh try and declare vindication.
But the Spartans are definitely on the right track.
When the Wolverines had a 21-14 lead and the ball in the third quarter, junior defensive end Brandon Graham’s proclamation — “I don’t think we are going to ever lose to State” — almost looked like it could come true.
With their best team in at least nine years facing Michigan’s worst in at least 41, the Spartans should have beaten Michigan. More important, their coach, Mark Dantonio, had to defeat the Wolverines. This game meant more to Dantonio than it did to anybody.
He came to East Lansing two years ago as a disciplined leader who would establish a foundation for the program. He circled the Michigan game as the stage to show the Spartans weren’t the same old Michigan State.
But two days after his team blew a 10-point lead with seven minutes left last season in a very Spartan manner — a phrase Dantonio used to describe his team’s effort Saturday — he sat in front of a group of reporters and went off the deep end. Michigan and Mike Hart’s “little brother” remarks had clearly gotten to him. He jabbed at Hart’s height, said the Wolverines “need to check themselves sometimes” and uttered the most-repeated phrase of his meltdown:
“Pride comes before the fall,” Dantonio said.
That wasn’t what happened Saturday, and Dantonio knows it.
“This was not the fall of Michigan football,” Dantonio said. “That’s not what this is about. Michigan has a good football team. They’re a very well-coached football team. They play with toughness and have a great tradition. What this was about was Spartan pride.”
The game won’t have a tremendous effect on the Wolverine program, not like it could for the Spartans, for whom Dantonio said, “This one counts a little more than one.”
For the fourth week in a row, a lengthy winning streak was snapped. Six straight against Illinois, 24 against teams in the Mid-American Conference, nine straight Penn State and now six against Michigan State — all ended. This loss might hurt a little more because it’s a rivalry game, but by this point, everybody realizes this is a rebuilding year.
But Dantonio needed this. How could he justify his message if he was 0-2 against Michigan? Instead, Dantonio became just the fourth of the Spartans’ 24 football coaches to beat Michigan in one of his first two tries. He now has the credibility to challenge the Wolverines for in-state recruits.
“I guess I can look in their eyes and say, ‘It could happen for you,’ ” Dantonio said.
Shortly after yells of “Go Green! Go White!” overtook Michigan Stadium, Dantonio walked into the Spartan locker room with the the Paul Bunyan Trophy tucked under his right arm.
But how secure is his grip? Control of the rivalry is in limbo right now, but both players think their team has it.
“(Offensive coordinator Don) Treadwell talked about it before the game,” Hoyer said. “We need to make a change. We need to make a change in this rivalry. We need to make a change in this state. I think the state is probably a little more green than it was yesterday.”
Said Graham: “They’ve got a lot to prove to Michigan. They’ve got a couple more games to win to start talking.”
And they both could be right. Michigan State has today, and there’s no denying that.
But the Spartans don’t have control. Neither does Michigan, though. The rivalry is up for grabs, and at this point, that’s a credit to Dantonio.
— Dan Feldman can be reached at email@example.com.