It felt less like a football game than a fraternity prank, where the upperclassmen leave the pledges in their underwear, in the cold, in the middle of a corn field. It was 28-0 at halftime, 42-0 after three quarters, and backups-to-the-backups making it 49-0 just before the final gun.
Whatever was left of Michigan State football’s sinking balloon of a season is in tatters now, torn and shredded. Saturday night’s shellacking at the hands of arch rival Michigan was the ugly bookend to A Year of Living Terribly, starting with last October’s drubbing in Ann Arbor, followed by the infamous tunnel fight in the Big House, then a 5-7 season record, no bowl game, and last month MSU’s coach, Mel Tucker, getting fired in an ongoing scandal.
Talk about a funk. The Spartans, now 2-5, have lost every game since Tucker left the sidelines, and while faithful fans had already written off this season with an asterisk, there was a small, silent hope that if the Spartans could upset the Wolverines, knock those arrogant Ann Arborites off their lofty No. 2-in-the-country pedestal, then salvation could yet be found in 2023.
Keep looking. This was never a game. Never a contest. It was an exhibition. It was Michigan as Picasso, painting Spartan Stadium in maize and blue, then wiping its brushes with the MSU uniforms.
Forty-nine points and nearly 500 yards on offense? Zero points allowed and two turnovers on defense?
“I thought we were really good,” Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh told NBC after this game ended. “Our guys played really hard.”
And when he says “our guys,” he means all of them. Subs played. Subs-to-the-subs played. By the end, I think the U-M trainers and bus drivers were out there.
‘Stay tuned!’ Unless you’re a Spartan fan
And then, when it was over, there was this: Michigan defensive back Mike Sainristil, who had a whale of a game, including a 72-yard interception return for a touchdown, was doing a national TV interview when he stopped to wave over backup Ja’Den McBurrows.
“Come here! Come here! Real quick!” he yelled, pulling in the teammate who at the end of last year’s Michigan-MSU contest was thrown to floor, dragged, hit and kicked by some Spartan players in the Big House tunnel, an incident that muddied this rivalry in a big way.
“The adversity he went through with what happened last year in that in that tunnel,” Sainristil hollered, “to come out and have a game like he did tonight, an interception, three or four tackles — Ja’Den McBurrows, stay tuned!”
They ran off together, happy as a pair of lottery winners. McBurrows did indeed get a measure of retribution Saturday night, his first career interception, even if it did come late in a game that had long since been decided.
Michigan fans who had ventured up to East Lansing witnessed it. By that point, many Spartan fans had already left the stadium.
Given what took place, you could hardly blame them. Because this was Michigan State’s worst home loss in the 100-year history of Spartan Stadium.
Not even the spirit of the rivalry could help
Look. I know Michigan has elite talent. I know the Spartans have been reeling under all that has happened this year. I know the cobbled leadership of Harlon Barnett as interim coach, Mark Dantonio as some kind of advisor, and athletic director Alan Haller combing the weeds for a potential new leader, isn’t exactly what we call “stability” for MSU players.
Still, this is their biggest game of the year. There have been previous seasons where the talent disparity favored Michigan. But the grit, the passion, the jealousies and the venom of this rivalry usually lifts players, sometimes beyond expectations. The hits are harder. The tackles are meaner. Weird things happen. Upsets take place.
Not Saturday night. From the very start, the Spartans played like they didn’t think they belonged. They let the Wolverines march 84 yards on the opening drive, surrendering a long pass on third-and-14 and giving up a touchdown run to Blake Corum on third-and-goal.
Michigan State’s offense then went for 26 yards on its first drive, followed by minus-5 yards on its second drive, then 6 yards, 3 yards and 6 yards on its remining possessions of the first quarter. The punter had to be exhausted. You knew this was over long before halftime.
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy had such an easy time slicing through the MSU defense, you almost wanted to put a blindfold on him to make it a fair fight. His accuracy was on full display, whipping touchdowns to his tight ends (three) and receivers (one) by splitting defenders, or whizzing the ball past their ears. He finished with 287 yards, going 21-for-27, and spent half the night only breaking a sweat by cheering on his fellow backups.
“We’re always gonna keep pushing, we’re always gonna keep wanting more,” McCarthy told NBC, “whether it’s the 1s is in there, 2s or 3s, we’re always gonna keep pushing.”
I don’t know. By the end, it might have been the 4s and 5s.
In-state matchup tilted heavily in one direction right now
Michigan’s defense continues to be the bloody card it leaves on the barroom table before departing. Already setting records for allowing less than 10 points per game in its first eight contests, the U-M defenders threw a shutout Saturday. They had nine tackles for loss and three sacks, in addition to picks by Sainristil and McBurrows.
That had to feel especially good in a rivalry game, although, truth be told, the heat is escaping from this affair. Michigan has now outscored MSU by a combined score of 78-7 its last two meetings.
And next year is in Ann Arbor.
Meanwhile, Michigan State ended the awful night with an unexpected dose of gruesome, having to issue an apology for an image of Adolf Hitler that flashed on the giant videoboard about an hour and a half before the game. The image was apparently part of a trivia game that MSU says it contracted from a “third party” vendor.
“MSU will not be using the third-party source going forward,” a school spokesperson said in a statement.
What an ugly green mess. What was it Sanristil yelled as he ran off in victory? “Stay tuned!”?
That may go for Wolverine fans. If you’re part of Spartan Nation, you’re just looking for the “off” button.