Spartans soar amid Michigan’s seasons-long slump
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Brady Hoke’s arrival at Michigan was supposed to signal a return to the program’s roots of power football and physicality.
Now in their fourth season under Hoke, the Wolverines have had a hard time recapturing that identity. That was never more apparent than when they lined up against Michigan State last year.
For 60 overpowering minutes, Michigan State demonstrated just how drastically the rivalry has shifted, gleefully bullying the Wolverines. Michigan lost 29-6 and the underlying stats were more alarming: The Wolverines allowed seven sacks, finished with minus-48 yards rushing and were shut out in the second half.
“Last year, I think as an offensive line, we went out there and just kind of let go of techniques and fundamentals and things like that, and just kind of played chaotic,” Michigan offensive lineman Jack Miller said. “It was a great team Michigan State had last year, just like they do this year.
“I think it was a perfect storm of probably a bunch of different things.”
Hoke was hired in 2011, a sharp change for the Wolverines after three seasons of Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense. Michigan was too porous defensively to win consistently under Rodriguez, but in Hoke’s first season the Wolverines went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl.
One of those two losses — at Michigan State, where Michigan allowed seven sacks and was outrushed 213-82.
Perhaps that was a sign the Wolverines were still having trouble matching up with the Spartans, who after years of playing second fiddle had become one of the Big Ten’s top teams under coach Mark Dantonio.
The Spartans experienced some ups and downs early in Dantonio’s tenure, but they shared the conference title in 2010, his fourth season. Last season, Michigan State broke through, winning the Big Ten and Rose Bowl — and manhandling Michigan along the way.
Hoke said this week his offensive linemen may have been “shocked a little bit” last year, and struggled with their technique as a result.
“You’ve got some guys who were young,” Hoke said. “That’s a different environment.”
The No. 8 Spartans host Michigan again this weekend, and as of midday Wednesday, Michigan State was a 17-point favorite.
Since 2008, the Wolverines have had five top-15 recruiting classes, according to Scout.com rankings. Michigan State, by contrast, did not have a class ranked higher than 19th.
That makes the on-field results even more puzzling, as the Spartans have established themselves as one of the nation’s top defensive programs.
“I think it starts with the coaches — we buy into what they do,” Spartans quarterback Connor Cook said. “I think we’re all pretty tough physically ... I think we have a lot of guys that are mentally strong as well, and I think mental toughness overrides physical toughness at times.”
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi credits his team’s approach to practice.
“We do plenty of tackling drills, we go pretty live in practice,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t think there’s anybody going into the seventh week of the season where they’re hitting like we are.”
The numbers are sobering for Michigan. Since beating Michigan State 45-37 in 2004, the Wolverines have scored fewer and fewer points in each of their last nine meetings — the longest streak of its kind in college football since at least 1980, according to STATS.
One Michigan touchdown this weekend would be enough to end that trend, but to win the game, the Wolverines will probably need to reverse another.
Michigan State holds a rushing edge of 1,080-471 — an average of 101.5 yards per game — in its last six meetings with Michigan. In this series, the team with more yards rushing has won 41 of the last 44 games.
“Being able to run the ball, because it sets up so much of your offense, is an important part of it,” Hoke said. “Every year, we talk about the rushing yards by one team. So when you look at it, yeah, there’s probably something to it.”