With 4:21 remaining in Saturday’s game, Michigan State coach football Mark Dantonio challenged his team and the Wolverine defense.
Leading by a touchdown on fourth-and-less than a yard, deep in Michigan territory, Dantonio decided to go for it.
“If you can’t make it that far, maybe you don’t deserve to win,” Dantonio said.
The Wolverines had just stuffed Spartan running back Javon Ringer on third and one. But needing just inches for a fresh set of downs, Dantonio put his faith in his team.
It was also a challenge to the Michigan defense and junior defensive end Brandon Graham, who had guaranteed a win.
On fourth down, Ringer ran at Michigan’s defensive front, picked up the necessary distance and showed how the Spartans earned the win. It was one of 194 rushing yards on the day by the nation’s rushing leader.
The Spartans scored four plays later to seal the 35-21 win, Michigan’s fourth straight loss.
It was Michigan State’s first win over the Wolverines since 2001 and its first in Ann Arbor since 1990.
Since he was hired two years ago, Dantonio has placed a heightened emphasis on the rivalry. After Michigan running back Michael Hart’s “little brother” comments following last year’s game, Dantonio fired back by saying “pride comes before the fall.” Saturday, the Spartans got theirs.
“We won’t walk the alleys, we can walk in the street,” Dantonio said.
Wolverine coach Rich Rodriguez became the fifth straight Michigan head coach to lose his first game against Michigan State.
The loss means Michigan (1-3 Big Ten, 2-6 overall) will need to win its final four games to become bowl eligible, and sends the program to its worst record since a 2-7 campaign in 1962.
Michigan stopped the Spartans (4-1, 7-2) on that third and one late in the game, but its performance on third and long decided the result. Beside the kneel to finish the game, the Spartans were 8-of-12 on third downs of at least five yards and scored two touchdowns in those situations.
“A couple of touchdowns that they got on us, we practiced all week,” defensive coordinator Scott Shafer said. “Make it in practice, got to make it in the game. It’s as simple as that.”
The Spartans averaged more than 11 yards per play on third down.
Entering the game, the question was whether Michigan’s defensive line could contain Ringer and pressure Michigan State fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Hoyer. Penn State running back Eric Royster averaged more than 10 yards per carry against the Wolverines last week, and the defensive line hadn’t registered a sack since the Wisconsin game. Add on Graham’s victory guarantee, and this highly touted group had plenty of motivation to save its reputation.
At times Saturday, the defensive line appeared to make the game-changing play. Graham led the way with three sacks, but it didn’t rattle Hoyer, who threw for 281 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
“We put a lot of pressure on Hoyer today, but the pressure didn’t get to him like I thought it was, but he made some big plays,” Graham said.
The line couldn’t stop Ringer, either.
For the first 27 minutes, it appeared as if it had contained Ringer, limiting him to about three yards per carry. But then he broke a 64-yard touchdown run, scampering almost untouched into the end zone. Redshirt sophomore Obi Ezeh called it a “backbreaker.” In the second half, Ringer continued to pound away, taking 20 carries for 85 yards and the go-ahead touchdown.
“They deserved to win,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t.”