It was a gutsy play, if not a smart one. The Spartans lined up for fourth and one on the Michigan 21. There were less than five minutes left; they had a one touchdown lead. One touchdown? Normally you kick a field goal. Normally, it’s a no-brainer.
But Saturday was not about normal.
“I looked over to Coach D,” quarterback Brian Hoyer would later tell the media, “and I could see him saying to himself, We’re going for it.’ “
Normal? Michigan State was sick of normal. Normal meant losing. Normal meant hearing U-M call them “little brother” and “second tier” and whatever other words exist for “also ran.” Normal meant 18 years without a win in Michigan Stadium. And even before this game began, you knew certain Spartans were done with that: several players did a silent trash talk to their Wolverine rivals, holding out two fingers and five fingers to rub in U-M’s 2-5 record. It was as subtle as a bottle rocket up your nose. This is your year to lose, Wolverines. We’re done with it.
And now they are. Michigan State made enough mistakes Saturday to lose two games, but they weren’t losing this one. They would get up from whatever knocked them down, even if it was their own two feet. Three field-goal attempts that got them nothing? Two fumbles that killed drives? Untimely penalties that extended Michigan drives? Oh, and the refs giving Michigan a touchdown it didn’t earn?
No matter. Javon Ringer took that fourth down hand-off, pushed through bodies, moved the chains, and the Spartans dominated the rest of the way, their first win in seven years in this series, and their first in Ann Arbor since 1990.
Lookie here. The lights just turned green. Spartans fulfill promise and expectations
“It’s always good to beat Michigan,” Ringer said in the press conference. But how would he know? Until Saturday, not one member of this Spartan team knew that joy. But when the clock ticked out, they ran as one to the Spartan corner of the stadium, and bounced and sang their fight song with their long-suffering supporters.
Come on, Wolverine fans. Even you should admit the Spartans didn’t steal this, they earned it. This year, anyhow, their talent is superior and their system is smoother. Oh, and there’s a little thing called desire. They had that big time.
How about Ringer, two touchdowns, 194 yards, and all that with the entire U-M team gunning for him.
How about Blair White, a walk-on from Saginaw who had three catches all last year? He had four Saturday for 143 yards and the opening touchdown.
How about the man throwing to him, Hoyer, coming off a miserable game against Ohio State? Yet here he was Saturday, reading defenses, stepping out of blitzes, finding receivers sometimes before they even found themselves. Hoyer hit one big pass after another, threw for 282 yards, and even played receiver, catching a pass and picking up 24.
“We handled some adversity,” Hoyer said in the press conference, “but not for an instant did we doubt ourselves. We knew we were gonna win that game.” Wolverines headed for infamous season
As for Michigan, Rich Rodriguez’s team showed a lot of heart, plenty of desire, and some tremendous hits from Brandon Graham, the junior defensive end who had boldly proclaimed “We are not going to lose to State.” He did all he could, sacking Hoyer numerous times.
But the rest of the Wolverines lacked that excellence. Michigan still isn’t running (83 yards) and Steven Threet is as erratic as you expect a freshman quarterback to be. And simply put, until the Wolverines fix their pass defense, they’ll have trouble with any team that throws the football.
Michigan now suffers the inglorious fate of its first non-winning season since before Bo Schembechler, and, most likely, its first winter without a bowl in 33 years. Rodriguez must deal with that. It won’t be fun. It won’t be pretty.
But it was pretty fun for the Spartans. And it’s good for the state. A rivalry is not a rivalry if one team always wins. This levels the playing field. It gives guys like Hoyer and Ringer a memory they can savor. And it puts Mark Dantonio on the map as A Man Who Can Get It Done.
He filled those shoes nicely with that fourth-down call. It showed a little moxie. It showed a little swagger. Mostly it showed a team that is not afraid to hit the gas, now that the lights have turned green.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.