Now that’s how you enter a rivalry. Ride into the other guy’s town, kick the doors in, and yell, “Howdy!” New coach Mel Tucker had exactly one performance under his belt at Michigan State, a forgettable seven-turnover loss to lowly Rutgers, before taking the bus ride down to Ann Arbor for the biggest game of the Spartans’ year.
By sunset, he had his first win.
And MSU was basking in a 27-24 upset.
‘’We were able,” Tucker said afterward, “to turn the page.”
Turn the page? They just built a new library. On a day that proved 2020 will never stop surprising us, the Spartans shook off a three-touchdown underdog tag the way a dog shakes off sprinkler water. They fought, tackled hard and rode a series of ridiculous long-yardage completions to stun Michigan on Saturday and end the Wolverines’ two-year dominance of the annual showdown.
Now, you can analyze these rivalry games by what the loser did wrong or what the winner did right. Let’s focus, for the moment, on the Spartans’ success, because this wasn’t blind luck, a bad turnover, or some freak play like, I don’t know, a blocked punt returned to the end zone as time expired?
No wait. That was 2015. Here in 2020, it was new starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi heaving passes down the sideline to new receiver Ricky White. Again and again, White made acrobatic catches over the Michigan defenders, behind the Michigan defenders or despite the Michigan defenders. A true freshman from Georgia, White probably needed a primer on why this game is such a big deal. But he marked the day with eight receptions and 196 yards, or an average of nearly 25 yards a catch.
That’s what you call return on investment.
“He was the player of the game!” gushed MSU senior linebacker Antjuan Simmons, who could have earned that title himself. “He was lights out! I don’t think I saw him drop a pass!”
Just when you thought White couldn’t catch any more, Lombardi threw him another one. He had a 50-yard reception. A 40-yard reception. On the Spartans’ most critical drive, midway through the fourth quarter, he had a big third down catch and another 31-yard bomb that moved the Spartans to the shadow of the Michigan end zone. That one he caught falling down, off the defender’s arm, as he hit the ground.
“I tend to concentrate,” White said.
Green and all right
All told, the Spartans racked up 323 yards passing and 126 yards rushing on the Jim Harbaugh/Don Brown defense. That’s more than twice the yards the Spartans had in last year’s game, a crushing 44-10 loss on this same field. That one marked Mark Dantonio’s swan song in this series, one his teams had dominated.
Mel Tucker just started his own tab.
“I’m just really excited and happy for our team, for our players, for our coaching staff and everyone involved,” Tucker said, “for our administration, all of our supporters, our fans, our alums …”
He may have left out the guy who fixes the fax machine.
But hey, can you blame him? A win this big leaves plenty to go around. Tucker, who was once a graduate assistant to Nick Saban at MSU, only took over the team in February. Then the coronavirus hit. There was no real training camp, no nonconference games, just, boom! Big Ten season. Go! Quite frankly, after last week’s loss, there were people in East Lansing scratching their green and white heads. Rutgers? Seven turnovers? What in the wild, wild Midwest was going on?
In truth, the Rutgers loss may have been a blessing. First, it took all expectations off the Spartans against Michigan.
Second, it gave them a laser focus: don’t turn the ball over. (They had no turnovers Saturday.)
And third, it may have made the Wolverines a tad overconfident. After all, as bad as MSU looked, that’s how good U-M looked in slamming Minnesota on the road last week. U-M racked up 49 points, all cylinders were flying, and new quarterback Joe Milton looked like the recruit everyone hoped for when Jim Harbaugh took the job in 2015.
Game 2 was a different story.
Maize and blues
So, OK, let’s talk about the losing side. This was a close affair, and there were moments you thought Michigan would hold back the tide and win it. But the Wolverines made way too many mistakes (10 penalties for 86 yards), and their defensive backs, especially junior Vincent Gray, were burned over and over by Lombardi and his receivers. Nobody expected Michigan’s secondary to be stellar early, but, let’s be blunt, if they play pass coverage like that against some other teams this season, it could be ugly.
Meanwhile, the offense went backward. Milton went from confident last week to tentative this week, pulling his passes down way too soon and taking off — often into the waiting arms of a solid Michigan State defense, which, showing Tucker’s influence, did not miss many tackles or chances to inflict punishment.
“I was too busy with my feet,” Milton admitted. “I was a lot more poised last week. … I don’t know why my feet were busy. My mind was rolling everywhere. It’s just on me.”
Milton threw 51 times and ran 12, so he’s right, a lot of the game was on him. But the rushing attack, after showing early promise, went into a shell. And when the defense had to make stops, it did not.
Just like that, the Wolverines had wide swaths of their season goals torn down. They lost to the Spartans. They are likely out of any playoff contention now. And unless they beat Ohio State, a Big Ten title, with only eight games this season, is already in jeopardy.
Could all that have happened in one game? Yes. The turning point came early in the fourth quarter. The Spartans had driven 75 yards to the Michigan 23. They had fourth-and-2 and, leading by only a field goal, and many thought they would go for it.
Instead, Tucker chose to try another field goal. The 40-yarder by Matt Coghlin sailed wide, and they had nothing.
This was the time for Michigan to grab the game. Seize the lost momentum, engineer a long drive, score a touchdown, hold the lead for a win, right?
Never happened. The Wolverines only went 28 yards and punted. The Spartans took the ball on their own 8-yard line and went 92 yards in 11 plays, chewing up clock and scoring on a Lombardi-to-Connor Heyward screen pass to push the lead to 10 points, 27-17.
It was all but over, despite a methodical comeback push by Michigan. They scored to pull within three points. But the Spartans ran down the clock in the final minute, and on fourth-and-2, Lombardi pulled a quarterback sneak to get the first down and ice the win.
I knew I had it,” Lombardi said. “I trust those guys up front. … It’s a yard and half, you know? If you can’t get a yard and a half, good luck!”
What a nice story for Spartan Nation, which has had a dearth of good news the last few years. Saturday’s win immediately injects new interest in a Harbaugh-Tucker rivalry. It puts Lombardi on the map (and White all over it). And it gives Simmons, a senior who went to school at Ann Arbor Pioneer, some bragging rights before he moves on.
And if it didn’t really feel like a U-M/MSU game? Well, blame coronavirus. When you play a “showdown” in the second week of the season and your stadium is full of cardboard cutouts instead of people, what do you expect? Saturday was less the Big House than the Big Empty.
Which is probably how Harbaugh and his team feel right now. A group of new green faces rode into town, busted up their saloon, and left with the Paul Bunyan Trophy. As Butch and Sundance might wonder, “Who were those guys?”
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.