EAST LANSING – Devin Gardner was splayed on his back, as stiff as a scarecrow knocked off its stick. Behind him, the Michigan State Spartans were celebrating in the end zone with another of his ill-advised passes, this one taken back for a touchdown and an 18-point lead.
It might as well have been 1800.
All Green. The best team in the state is clearly the best team in the state, and it’s no shock that eighth-ranked MSU continued its dominance in this rivalry Saturday afternoon, winning, 35-11.
No, the shock is that, if the Wolverines had any kind of offense, they might have won this game. They don’t. They didn’t. That simple. Time after time in the early going, the U-M defense stuffed the heavily favored Spartans, sacked their quarterback, held back their running backs, even forced a fumble and recovered it, first time that had happened all year for the Maize and Blue.
And time after time, they handed the ball over to Gardner and the offense, like a wife handing her paycheck to gambling husband.
Talk about zero return on investment. Gardner fumbled after a great defensive stand. Gardner took a sack after the defense held on fourth down. Gardner threw a wobbler interception to nobody over the middle. Gardner threw a panicked shovel pass that went into Spartan hands.
And when he wasn’t making awful decisions, or passes that were a challenge just to catch, his receivers weren’t holding on and his running backs were going nowhere. The one U-M scoring drive in the first half was telling. The line read like this: Four plays, zero yards, one narrowly made field goal.
Not exactly powerhouse.
Not great, but plenty good enough
The Spartans, on the other hand, are so good now, they don’t have to play their best game to win by a lot. Mark Dantonio won’t be happy with just 28 offensive points (MSU averages 47) or that his guys coughed up the ball twice and had just two touchdowns in the first half. But they puffed out their chests the final 30 minutes, and not only grabbed two turnovers, but tacked on a 70-yard TD pass, Connor Cook down the sidelines to the increasingly impressive Tony Lippett. It was over once that made it 28-3.
In truth, it was over by the coin toss.
“Big win, huge win for us,” Dantonio told ABC-TV on the field. “You really can’t understate it.”
The stats will show that MSU’s rock-solid defense held U-M to 186 yards, barely more than MSU running back Jeremy Langford had by himself (177 yards and three TDs).
But stats are often misleading in this annual affair. In many ways this game resembled last year’s 29-6 MSU stomping. A low-scoring, chin-punching affair early on, that began to slip away on U-M’s tepid offense, then tilted Green big time by the end.
And no one should be surprised. We hype this game a great deal. So do the networks. Much was made during the ABC broadcast of Dantonio stinging from Mike Hart’s infamous “little brother” comment seven years ago. But that’s silly. Dantonio should be way past that, and so should his team. The Spartans’ program is so superior in every way right now, that even their one nagging shortcoming against U-M — getting five-star recruits — works to an advantage, because they coach up hungry, overlooked talent into NFL potential.
Wolverines’ season is toast
Meanwhile, it’s possible Dantonio has faced Brady Hoke for the last time. If there was any good chance of Hoke keeping his job, it was in winning this game, on the road, despite MSU being favored by 17, the biggest such spread in memory of this rivalry.
Instead, it was the same 2014 Wolverines, bad execution, bad decisions and an unreliable quarterback with no viable alternative. Gardner, a nice young man, is simply a turnover machine. Any way you look at it, at 3-5, U-M’s season is done, and Hoke likely done with it.
MSU fans, meanwhile, may complain that we should be talking more about a Spartans victory than the U-M defeat. But that’s the price of success. Beating U-M at this point is not a huge accomplishment.
Fact is, there is only one game that matters in the Big Ten now, two weeks away, when MSU plays host to No. 13 Ohio State.
You hear that, Sparty? MSU-Ohio State is the Big Game. You’ve not only stolen Michigan’s dominance and confidence, you’ve stolen its rivalry.
What’s left to take?