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Underdog Week: What are the biggest upset wins in recent MSU history?

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and review some of the most surprising wins in recent MSU Hoops and Gridiron history.

Michigan State v Ohio State
Michael Geiger’s FG in 2015 to beat the Buckeyes was huge, but was it the #1 upset in the past 20 years or so?
Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

This week at SB Nation, the focus in on underdogs, which got me thinking: what are some of the biggest upset wins in recent memory for MSU Football and Basketball? And (because I am me) how can we quantity it? Fortunately, I have some thoughts on that.

The easiest way to quantity the magnitude of an upset is simply by looking at point spreads. The bigger the spread, the biggest the upset. But, how does for example, a seven-point spread in basketball compare to a 10-point spread in football?

As it turns out, I have developed correlations over the years that relate point spreads in both sports to historical win probabilities for the favored teams. So, the odds of an upset in both sports can be directly compared. As it turns out, seven-point basketball and 10-point football underdogs both win about 25 percent of the time.

When it comes to recent MSU contests, there are a few big games and situations that come to mind:

NCAA Tournament

When it comes to basketball upsets, the first thing that most fans think about are the March Madness buzzer beaters. While MSU is usually the favored team in March, the Spartans have racked up quite a resume of tournament upsets. In fact, MSU leads all Division 1 schools with 18 total NCAA Tournament upset wins, based on seeds (Villanova is second with 17 and Syracuse is third with 13.) Moreover, Tom Izzo has 15 of those 18 upsets, which also puts him in first place all-time since seeding began in 1979. (For the record, Jim Boeheim is second with 13, and third place is a tie at 11 between Lute Olson and Villanova great Rollie Massimino)

But, which upset was the biggest? How about this one:

March 22nd, 2015: No. 7 Michigan State 60, No. 2 Virginia (-4.5) 54 ==> Upset Odds: 33%

In terms of the biggest upset based on seed differential, MSU’s upset of Virginia in 2015 is tied with No. 7 seed MSU’s dismantling of Billy Donovan’s No. 2 seed Florida Gator team in 2003.

MSU came into the 2015 game with the Virginia with a bit of momentum. The Spartans had narrowly missed out on beating Wisconsin for the Big Ten Tournament Title the weekend prior, and had handled No. 10 seed Georgia in the first round. Furthermore, Virginia may have come in a bit tight, as the memory of an upset loss to the Spartans in the previous year’s Sweet Sixteen may have still been on their minds.

Travis Trice came out of the gate hot, hitting his first five shots (including three triples) as MSU built an early 15-4 lead. While the Cavilers eventually cut the lead to only two just after halftime, the Spartans never trailed after the first two minutes of the game and cruised to a six-point victory.

Trice led all scorers with 23 points, while Branden Dawson chipped in 15. MSU also played stiffing defense, as Virginia shot under 30 percent from the field and making just two shots on 17 attempts from three.

Following the win over UVA, the Spartans beat Oklahoma and then Louisville in overtime to advance to Coach Izzo’s seventh Final Four. While the Spartans eventually lost to Duke in the worst free throw shooting contest in Final Four history, it was Coach Izzo’s best underdog run to the final weekend in his career.

Based on the spread, MSU only had a 33 percent chance of beating Virginia in 2015. If you go by adjusted efficiency data from Ken Pomeroy, MSU’s odds were lower at 26 percent, making it the biggest NCAA Tournament upset of Tom Izzo’s career. But, if you go purely by point spreads, this game is in second place (at least back to 2004). By the spread, the first place game is

March 29th, 2009: No. 2 Michigan State 64, No. 1 Louisville (-6.5) 52 ==> Upset odds: 26%

While this was still a No. 1 vs. No. 2 Midwest Regional Final, the Rick Pitino coached Cardinals were the No. 1 overall tournament seed and favorite to win the whole thing, hence the big spread. (Incidentally, Kenpom was not so high on Louisville and calculated the upset odds to be 43 percent).

Louisville came into the game confident. Extremely confident. Their pressure defense was supposed to turn over MSU and make it a track-meet dunkfest. Instead, it was Travis Walton and MSU’s tough man-to-man defense that carried the day. Led by Goran Suton’s 19 points and 10 rebounds, Michigan State traded punches with Louisville for the first 27 minutes of the game.

Then, the Cardinals just started to fade. At the under 12 minute time out, MSU led by four points. At the under eight minute time out, MSU led by 10 points. By the under four minute time out, MSU was up by 13 points and Louisville flat out gave up. I have honestly have never seen the will and pride sapped from an opponent so completely in such a high-stakes game. MSU choked the life out of them like an anaconda.

As a reward, MSU earned Coach Izzo his fifth Final Four appearance, this time in Detroit. While the Spartans won one more game over a No. 1 seed in the Final Four (UCONN) before succumbing to the UNC buzzsaw, the underdog victory over Louisville was the game that made that glorious weekend in Detroit a reality.

Regular Season Basketball Games

While those tournament games were the most memorable and impactful, they weren’t necessarily the biggest upsets. As I go through spread data back to 2004, the biggest upset on record that I can find is:

February 11th, 2012: Michigan State 58, at Ohio State (-8.5) 48 ==> Upset odds: 20%

The Spartan and the Buckeyes had three epic battles in 2012. Many will remember the game at Breslin where Dawson was lost for the season and the Buckeyes ruined Draymond Green’s Senior Day. Many will also remember the “revenge game” in the Big Ten Tournament Final seven days later, where MSU got the win, cut down the nets, and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

But the first game between the two teams that year took place a month earlier in Columbus, as the No. 11 ranked underdog Spartans knocked off the No. 3 ranked Buckeyes in their own building. MSU’s defense was the story here as well, as the Spartans held OSU to just 26 percent from the floor and 2-of-15 from three.

MSU got 15 points from Adrian Payne, 14 points from Keith Appling, and 12 points from Draymond Green. The Buckeye led early, but MSU surged ahead at the 12 minute mark of the first half and never looked back, cruising to a 10-point road win.

While this game might be easily forgotten in the lore of Michigan State basketball, the math shows this to be the biggest underdog win in recent MSU basketball history.

Basketball Honorable Mentions

MSU is not often an underdog in the Breslin center, but it does happen and some very memorable upset wins have come as a result. The biggest home upset that I can find was MSU’s upset of Wisconsin (-3.5, upset odds = 35 percent) in 2017 on Senior Day. This win likely sealed MSU’s bid to the NCAA Tournament during Miles Bridges’ freshman year and is also known as the game where senior Eron Harris limped to center court to kiss the Spartan head after suffering a season-ending injury at Purdue a week prior.

The second biggest upset was also against Wisconsin (-1.5, upset odds 42 percent), this time in 2007. At the time, MSU was unranked and the Badgers were ranked No. 2. But, Drew Neitzel put the Spartans on his back, scored 28 points, and MSU pulled away late for a 64-55 win.

But, for my money, the most satisfying upset win in recent Breslin Center history has to be:

February 12th, 2013: Michigan State 75, Michigan (-1.5) 52 ==> upset odds: 44%

It was an interesting time in the history of the Michigan-Michigan State basketball rivalry. It was John Beilein’s sixth season in Ann Arbor, and the Wolverines seemed on the brink of a breakthrough. The previous year Michigan spent all season ranked for the first time since they stopped paying players toward the end of last century.

The Wolverines started the season ranked No. 5 in the AP poll, and even briefly rose to No. 1 for a week in late January. All of a sudden, fans in Ann Arbor realized that they had a basketball team, and with this realization came the very-real Wolverine feeling of entitlement. At long last, they had risen once again to their proper place in the basketball hierarchy.

Meanwhile, in East Lansing, the Spartans started the season with a modest No. 14 AP ranking. But, as Big Ten season progressed, the Spartans seemed to gain momentum, climbing all the way to No. 8 in the polls prior to “Michigan Week.”

The Wolverines had recently lost two-of-three and had slipped slightly in the polls to No. 4. Yet, they remained confident that this was their moment; the moment when they finally would beat a ranked Spartan team in the their own gym and make a statement that the rivalry had changed, almost certainly forever.

They assembled their own cast of celebrities to attend the game at the courts edge, just in case (like there was any doubt) victory were to be theirs. Former football coach Lloyd Carr was there, as was current football coach Brady Hoke, and Governor and U of M alum Rick Snyder. They were all ready to be caught on camera celebrating a glorious Wolverine victory.

Then, the game actually started.

Led by 17 points from Gary Harris and 14 from Derrick Nix, MSU blew the doors off Michigan from the opening tip to the final buzzer. The Spartans led by as much as 16 points in the first half and as much as 30 in the second. It wound up being the biggest blowout win for MSU in the series since 2002, which was ironic considering it was the first time in history that the two teams met as Top 10 teams.

Michigan wound up with a narrow victory over MSU in Ann Arbor a few weeks later and eventually made the Final Four (thanks to some missed Kansas free throws and a near mid-court heave from Trey Burke) while MSU got bounced by Duke in the Sweet Sixteen.

Michigan also certainly made the rivalry a bit more competitive in the recent years. But, the hubris they showed in 2013 was very real and “pure Michigan.” The fact that they got the door slammed so hard in their face was glorious, and it makes this one of my favorite wins and best upsets over the Wolverines of all time.

Spartan Home Football Games

While MSU basketball has certainly enjoyed some great underdog wins, it has also been the stronger of the two revenue sports over the past 25 years. So, it is reasonable to expect that the biggest upsets would likely have been on the gridiron. As I first look through the historical data from games in Spartan Stadium, the biggest upset win of this century appears to be:

November 4th, 2017: Michigan State 27, Penn State (-10) 24 ==> Upset Odds: 24%

As I remember it, the game started with a bang. Sort of. Well, it was actually thunder and lightning, and the game was delayed for three-and-a-half hours in the middle of the second quarter. The rain-soaked game lasted over seven hours but featured some furious back-and-forth action as neither team led by more than a touchdown at any point.

Quarterback Brian Lewerke threw for 400 yards even on the day, including touchdown passes to both Felton Davis and Darrell Stewart, while running back LJ Scott added a touchdown on the ground. In the end, it was Matt Coghlin who was the hero, as he kicked two fourth quarter field goals, including the game winner as time expired. His baseball-style slide after sealing the game would count as one of the most famous kicking-based ends to a game if it wasn’t for MSU’s 2015 season... more on that below.

Spartan Road Football Games

At the end of the day, it is harder to win away from home, and so naturally the biggest underdog stories almost always happen on the road. As luck would have it, there is actually a tie for the biggest upset in recent MSU sports history. the first of which is:

October 13th, 2018: Michigan State 21, Penn State (-13.5) 17 ==> Upset Odds: 17%

While it might seem crazy that two of the biggest upsets in MSU football history over the past 20 years are both recent wins over Penn State, that is what the data says. MSU’s road win over the Nittany Lions had only a 17 percent chance of happening based on historical data, making it tied for the biggest underdog win in MSU revenue sports since at least 2004.

Similar (yet dryer) to the game a year before, the game was tight throughout, but MSU never led until quarterback Brian Lewerke connected on a 25-yard pass to Felton Davis with just 19 seconds left on the clock. Sadly, it would be Davis’ final catch as a Spartan, as he went down with a torn Achilles tendon the following week versus Michigan.

As for the other game that share the honor with the Penn State win, well it happens to be a classic

November 21st, 2015: Michigan State 17, Ohio State (-13.5) 14 ==> Upset Odds: 17%

It was once again a rainy afternoon, this time in Columbus, and the inside track to Indianapolis was on the line. But, there was a problem. Starting Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook had injured his shoulder the previous week against Maryland and was unable to play. MSU had to face their toughest challenge of the season without arguably their best player.

Fortunately, MSU’s defense was up to the challenge. They held the Buckeyes to only 132 yards of total offense, including only 33 yard from Ezekiel Elliot on a mere 2.8 yards per attempt and less than 100 yards of total offense from J.T. Barrett. The Buckeye’s only two scores of the day were gift-wrapped due to MSU fumbles, first by Damion Terry at the MSU 32-yard-line and the second by a muffed punt courtesy of Macgarret Kings at the MSU six-yard-line.

Meanwhile, MSU mustered just enough offense to stay in it. Tyler O’Connor engineered a 75-yard drive in the first half, including a pair of long passes to Aaron Burbridge, and ending with a 12-yard touchdown pass to fullback Trevon Pendleton.

Later in the second half, following the muffed punt incident, MSU rattled off another 75-yard drive consisting only of run plays and ending with a two-yard score by Gerald Holmes to tie the score at 14 apiece.

With time growing short, MSU pinned the Buckeyes deep and forced a punt with four minutes remaining from Ohio State’s own 11-yard-line. MSU got the ball back near midfield and proceeded to grind out 25 hard-fought yards, mostly on the ground, down to the OSU 26-yard-line.

Then, it was Michael Geiger time.

We all remember what happened next. Geiger split the uprights as time expired and ran off the field doing the now famous “windmill.” It was a tremendous win for MSU that paved the way for another Big Ten title and the program’s first appearance in the College Football Playoffs. It will be remembered as one of the greatest underdog stories in MSU history.

Are there any big upsets that I forgot to mention? What is your favorite upset win in MSU history? Leave us a comment until next time, Go Green.