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November 2, 2013The rain poured down on Spartan Stadium on a miserably gloomy afternoon. The cloudburst didn't come close to representing the toughest washout for the visiting team.
The flood took the form of the Michigan State defense, that battered and sacked Devin Gardner seven times, drowned U-M's running game in a program-record-low minus 48 yards, and generally sucked the Wolverines to the depths in a 29-6 win.
The Spartans out-gained the Wolverines, 394-168, out-rushed them, 148-negative 48, out-passed them, 252-216, and simply out-muscled them in a win that all but takes Michigan (6-2, 2-2) out of the Legends Division race.
Michigan State (8-1, 5-0) took clear control of a race that has it on a collision course with Nebraska in Lincoln in two weeks. The Spartans warmed up with collisions aplenty.
They played the Wolverines to a 6-6 standoff through the first 27 minutes of action, both defenses containing Gardner (14-for-27, 210 yards) and Connor Cook (18-for-33, 252 yards, one touchdown) with some help from the elements. From that point on, it was all MSU, much to the delight of 76,306 fans in the stadium.
The Spartans reeled off 23 straight points for the final margin, its biggest in the series since 1967. Gardner didn't finish the game, giving way to freshman Shane Morris in the closing moments.
"He got pounded a little bit," U-M head coach Brady Hoke said. "He was a warrior out there that last drive before the interception at the end, did a nice job getting us down the field, had taken a lot of shots earlier in the game. Just a little bit worn out."
The Spartans wore Michigan out on both sides of the ball, consistently thwarting U-M's offensive opportunities with pressure, while banging away until the Wolverines reeled on defense.
"It's holding the rope, on both sides of the ball," linebacker Desmond Morgan insisted. "It's a team sport for a reason. I can speak more on behalf of the defense. I know we had opportunities to hold up our end, and capitalize, and stop them on some key third downs. We didn't do it, and obviously, that's going to hurt you."
This one hurt more and more, as the game went on.
Michigan came out aggressively, Gardner connecting with Jeremy Gallon on a 35-yard play-action pass on the very first play of the game. He hit Gallon (five catches, 67 yards) twice more on the drive, setting up Matt Wile's 49-yard field goal in a pouring rain, putting U-M up, 3-0 less than five minutes in.
MSU answered with a big play of its own, Cook firing a throwback pass to an uncovered fullback Trevon Pendleton, who rumbled 49 yards. That set up Michael Geiger's 40-yard field goal at the 9:10 mark of the first quarter.
Both teams then settled into a defensive drama in the drizzle, unable to cash in until Geiger banged through a 44-yard field goal at the 11:19 mark of the second quarter. Meanwhile, the Spartans kept thwarting U-M drives by swarming Gardner under a sea of green, with four sacks in the opening quarter alone.
The Wolverines moved into MSU territory mid-second quarter, then threw it wholly into reverse. A shotgun snap that sailed high over Gardner's head lost 20 yards, and yet another sack and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on tackle Taylor Lewan forced Michigan to punt out of its own end zone.
U-M's defense helped dodge that potential bullet, and Gardner dodged the tidal wave long enough on the next possession to unload. He gunned a 58-yard bomb to Jehu Chesson (three catches, 82 yards) down the middle, setting up Brendan Gibbons' game-tying field goal with 3:22 left in the half.
The 39-yarder banged hard into the right upright, deflected downward, but had enough to make it over the crossbar, knotting the game at 6-6.
The Spartans then combined a little luck with some big plays in a 10-snap, 75-yard touchdown drive to grab a 13-6 edge at the half. The Wolverines tipped two of Cook's throws on the march into the air, but both tumbled harmlessly to the turf without an interception.
Cook made the Wolverines pay in the end, lofting a 14-yard touchdown pass to Bennie Fowler (six catches, 75 yards) in the right corner of the end zone with just 23 seconds left in the half. On a foul day in which the goals lines appeared elusive as a dry seat in Spartan Stadium, MSU struck a huge blow.
"That was disappointing, the drive there at the end of the half," Hoke said. "It drives you crazy, you give up points right at the end of the half. It was disappointing."
As it turned out, it opened the floodgates.
Geiger put the Spartans up, 16-6, with a 35-yard field goal just 5:06 into the second half. A leaping interception by Michigan cornerback Raymon Taylor, combined with an 18-yard return, set the Wolverines up on MSU's 40 late in the third quarter. But three straight green-tinted burials of Gardner sent U-M reeling 21 yards in the wrong direction.
Down 16-6 after three quarters, the Wolverines couldn't find a crack to crawl through against the Spartans.
"A lot of this game absolutely falls on the offensive line," Lewan said. "They ran a bunch of blitzes, a lot of the same blitzes they ran in 2011 when it came down to it, we couldn't pick it up. That's our job."
It wasn't that way on the other side. The Spartans applied the clincher on their first possession of the final quarter, driving 68 yards in nine plays for a touchdown. Cook kept the drive alive on a third-and-12 floater down the middle to Fowler for 25 yards, then punched it in himself from a yard out.
Michigan blocked the extra point, but still trailed 22-6 with 10:31 to play. The Wolverines' chances on offense, meanwhile, kept washing away in the drizzle.
Gardner drove the Wolverines from their own 26 to the MSU red zone, but cornerback Darqueze Dennard put up the stop sign. He muscled Gallon, then picked off Gardner's throw at the MSU 3-yard line.
The Spartans then added a big fistful of insult to injury, going 97 yards for the final touchdown. Langford broke off a 40-yard touchdown run against a reeling Michigan defense. At 29-6, the tears of U-M fans subbed in for the rain.
"Any game you play in of this magnitude, there are going to be a lot of emotions," Morgan offered. "Anger and frustration are two that definitely run through my mind right now. At the end of the day, you've got to move forward."
That's precisely what the Wolverines couldn't do, nearly often enough, against a Michigan State defense that flooded through on a washout of a day.