EAST LANSING — After Michigan eked out an ugly 36-33 win over Indiana last week, Wolverine wide receiver Martavious Odoms said confidently, “We’re the only team that can beat us.”
With a nonexistent running game, stifled passing game and sieve defense, the Wolverines finally succeeded in doing that Saturday. But the losing effort included a last-gasp comeback attempt that has seemed to become their trademark.
Michigan tried its best to avoid its first loss of the season by scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter’s final five minutes to send the game into overtime. But after the Spartans intercepted Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier’s third-down pass in the first overtime possession, Spartan running back Larry Caper ran in the winning 23-yard touchdown on the ensuing drive to seal a 26-20 Michigan State win.
It took 55 minutes for the Wolverines to have a breakout play, but sophomore wide receiver Darryl Stonum’s 60-yard touchdown catch suddenly pushed Michigan within seven. As a heavy rain fell, the Wolverine defense forced a three-and-out, and Forcier and the offense took the field again with two minutes and 53 seconds left in the game. They needed all but two of those seconds to string together a 92-yard scoring drive, capped by a 9-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman wide receiver Roy Roundtree on third-and-8.
“I’m really proud of the way Tate battled,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “We never got into rhythm the whole game, but at least we hung around long enough to have a chance.”
Michigan’s late effort wasn’t enough to make up for its poor play during almost all of regulation. The Wolverines lost by just six, but in all likelihood, the gap should have been much larger. At the half, the Spartans had 12 first downs and 223 offensive yards, while Michigan had minus-three rushing yards and a 50-percent pass completion rate. The Wolverines looked disjointed, intimidated and didn’t seem to get into a groove until Stonum’s touchdown pass.
Michigan (4-1) made a statement early before letting the Spartans (2-3) take over the game. On Michigan State’s third play of the game, redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen tipped Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins’s pass and senior linebacker Stevie Brown grabbed the interception. Brown ran the ball back 18 yards, giving Michigan the ball at the Michigan State 14-yard line. The Spartan defense held Michigan to minus-five yards on the drive before the Wolverines kicked a 36-yard field goal.
But the Wolverine pass defense was nonexistent again on Michigan State’s second drive, one that lasted over 10 minutes and featured 130 total offensive yards. The Spartans moved the ball easily against the secondary, but four penalties for 50 yards — including three personal foul penalties — hindered their progress. On the Spartans’ second drive, wide receiver Keshawn Martin had an 18-yard run nullified by a 15-yard Michigan State personal foul for a late hit on redshirt junior linebacker Obi Ezeh. On the next play, the Spartans were again called for a personal foul after completing an 8-yard pass, this one a late hit on junior cornerback Donovan Warren. But the Spartans eventually pushed the ball inside the one-yard line on third down and goal, giving them a fourth down and inches. The Wolverines couldn’t make the stop, as Caper converted on a one-yard run to give the Spartans the 7-3 lead.
In his first college road game, Forcier looked rattled early by the hostile atmosphere, with the Michigan offense tallying minus-five yards and 5 yards in its two first quarter drives. Meanwhile, the Michigan State offense continued to run over the Wolverine defense with long passes, including a third-and-18 conversion early in the second quarter when Cousins lofted a 27-yard pass to wide receiver B.J. Cunningham for the first down. The Spartans ended 8-of-18 on third-down attempts.
“It was the third downs that killed us,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know how many times the quarterback scrambled and got first downs, and that’s very frustrating when you play two good snaps and on the third snap, they get a big first down.”
The Wolverine cornerbacks continued to give Michigan State receivers a large cushion, which allowed them to easily catch Cousins’s throws and drive the ball down the field again to go up 10-6 on a field goal going into halftime. Cousins was 13-of-16 in the first half, tearing the Wolverines up for 140 passing yards.
The Wolverines have maintained all season that they are a “second-half team” — but they looked no better coming out of the locker room after halftime. On the first possession of the second half, Michigan had a chance to start fresh, but quickly went three-and-out for a loss of eight yards on the drive. That meant Michigan State got the ball at midfield for its first possession of the second half and steadily drove the ball downfield. But on third down at the Michigan 21-yard line, Cousins, under pressure, threw an interception to Warren to come away from the drive scoreless.
But again, Michigan’s offense couldn’t string together a drive to take advantage of the turnover — Forcier and the offense couldn’t get a first down. Instead of the offense going for it on fourth and inches from the Michigan 16-yard line, fifth-year senior punter Zoltan Mesko took the snap and ran on a fake punt, but was stopped well short of the first down. That meant the Spartans received the ball on the Michigan 13-yard line and kicked a field goal a few plays later to extend their lead to 7. They scored again 11 seconds into the fourth quarter to take a 20-6 lead.
Michigan got what looked like a perfect opportunity to build momentum when Ezeh recovered a Michigan State fumble with 11 minutes left in the game. After Forcier completed a 10-yard pass, Michigan State got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on another late hit to move the Wolverines ahead 15 additional yards to the Michigan State 27-yard line. But on the next play, Stonum fumbled the ball and the Spartans recovered. At the time, Michigan had -21 yards rushing on the game.
The Wolverines’ fortunes temporarily improved after Michigan State turned the ball over on downs and Forcier led the two-touchdown rally. But in the end, Michigan State only needed three plays on its overtime drive to score and end the game.
It is the first time in 42 years that Michigan has lost two straight to its in-state rival.
“It hurt to lose, period — but especially to State,” senior defensive end Brandon Graham said. “They won the game and that’s all I could really say about that.”
For full coverage of Saturday’s game, read SportsMonday on October 5.