EAST LANSING, Mich. — Spare us the “Little Brother” talk.
The preeminent college football program in the state of Michigan is Michigan State. And I'm not writing that because the No. 24 Spartans battered, bruised and bullied the No. 23 Wolverines 29-6 Saturday.
It's time for those in maize and blue clinging to tradition to realize that football in the state the past six years has gone green.
Michigan State has won five of six games in the series, holding Michigan to one touchdown the past 13 quarters. The Spartans have a co-Big Ten championship and an appearance in the league title game. The Wolverines have neither.
In that stretch, MSU has finished in the Top 25 more often than UM and has a better overall record (42-23 to 40-31).
Michigan State (8-1, 5-0) also has dominant position in the Legends Division race with Michigan (6-2, 2-2) out of the way and Nebraska (6-2, 3-1) still stumbling.
But why is the six-year span noteworthy?
In 2007, after Michigan rallied for a 28-24 win over Michigan State, Wolverine running back Mike Hart entertained the media with this description of the comeback:
“It's just like when you're playing your little brother in basketball. You let him get a lead and you let him get excited, but then you take it back from him.”
That started an emotional fire in the Michigan State football complex that burns to this day. And it grew hotter last week when UM running back Fitz Toussaint brought it up again.
One of these days, folks in Ann Arbor might want to rethink the attitude that Ohio State is Michigan's only “real” rival.
Michigan, after being sacked seven times Saturday, finished with minus-48 yards rushing. Toussaint's eight carries produced 20 yards, so he had plenty of bench time to listen to the Spartan students serenade the Wolverines with, “Little Sister, Little Sister.”
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Some Michigan players also talked last week about how they were “bullied” in a 28-14 loss at Michigan State two years ago, and vowed not to let it happen again.
How did that work out?
The Wolverines were held 36 points and 278 yards under their season averages. Meanwhile, the Spartans gained 394 yards and had the first running back (Jeremy Langford, 120 yards) top the 100-yard mark this season against UM.
Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State's all-world and high-strung defensive coordinator, was asked about Michigan's we-won't-get-bullied comments. He paused, then couldn't help himself:
“It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, I guess,” Narduzzi said. “We are going to bully people.”
Was it a bigger beatdown than in 2011?
“Two years ago wasn't nothing,” MSU linebacker Denicos Allen said. “It was worse today, and they felt it.”
Nobody felt it more than Devin Gardner.
The Wolverine quarterback ran for minus-46 yards, barely completed 50 percent of his passes and took hits 30 times in 55 snaps before wobbling out of the game in the fourth quarter.
“It was almost like Devin couldn't breathe out there,” said Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, who faces that heat in practice four times a week. “And there is no worse feeling in football than that.”
Cook was involved in giving Michigan, down 16-6 late in the third quarter, a glimmer of hope when he threw off-balance and into double coverage. Michigan's Raymon Taylor intercepted and returned it 17 yards to the Wolverine 41.
The next three plays are why Michigan State's defense is ranked Nos. 1, 2 or 3 nationally in the five major categories.
On first-and-10, Gardner tried a quarterback run play that got strung out into a 5-yard loss with safety Isaiah Lewis and defensive end Shilique Calhoun on the stop.
On second-and-15, Gardner dropped back to pass and got smoked for a 9-yard sack by the blitzing Allen.
The Wolverines called timeout to regroup. Then on third-and-24, Gardner got swamped for a 7-yard sack by Allen and linebacker Ed Davis to make it fourth-and-31.
Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough said the defense thrives on sudden-change challenges, like after a turnover.
“The other team thinks they have the advantage,” he said. “They think they are going to score. But when we stuff them and hold them even without a field goal, it's double for us. They lose their momentum and we gain it.”
That sequence of minus-21 yards ended the third quarter. At that point, 25 of Michigan's 43 snaps (58 percent) had resulted in a loss or no gain.
This is a scary-good defense. Yes, you can hit the Spartans for an occasional long pass because of their aggressive scheme. But the front four gets a consistently strong push, and the back seven operates at high speed in pursuit.
Oh, and for Nebraska fans hoping Michigan State goes stale with a bye week before the Nov. 16 game in Lincoln, read this:
“Taylor Martinez has torched us the last couple of years,” Bullough said. “We haven't been able to beat Nebraska. So we've got another challenge ahead of us.”
The crooked little smile from the black-eyed Bullough indicates it's a challenge the Spartans will readily take on.