Many of you probably remember my series from spring Reliving Past Tournaments: Tom Izzo’s Top Wins. Given the lack of football this fall, I will be hitting the gridiron history each week taking a look back at all the wins we enjoyed under former head coach Mark Dantonio’s 13-season tenure. Each week of (what would have been) the regular season, I will go through and select what I think was that corresponding week’s “best win” out of 13 seasons worth of them and recap the action.
While there were some great candidates for the best Week One win such as 2012’s season opening victory over Boise State complete with Le’Veon Bell leaps, which also featured the new video boards debut, or 2014’s win over Jacksonville State which saw Connor Cook slinging balls all over the field as a preview to what would be a record setting offensive season, there have been a lot of great games to open the season. However, when it came down to it for me, Week One’s best win was an easy choice. Which one did I choose?
No. 5 Michigan State at Western Michigan
September 4, 2015
Waldo Stadium, Kalamazoo, MI
I admit this was not the prettiest win ever. The final score also did not feel like it reflected how well the Western Michigan Broncos played. However, even watching this one on television the atmosphere was truly a special setting. Western was starting to show growth under head coach P.J. Fleck and his phenomenal recruiting at one of MSU’s in-state Mid-American Conference foes. However, the eventual Big Ten champs and College Football Playoff team did enough to get the win to kick off the season.
In front of an intimate crowd of 30,885 compared to the Spartans’ usual stadium settings, Michigan State played what would become the final road game in its “Celebrate the State” tour as Eastern Michigan eventually cancelled the game scheduled for Ypsilanti. Waldo Stadium, the smaller MAC stadium that is home to Western Michigan was a unique game opportunity for fans and viewers at home, and was a special event in its own right. As for the action on the field? The Spartans finished the first half with a strong lead, but couldn’t do much after a three-touchdown performance in the first quarter.
Michigan State started the game on offense, but could only manage a six-play, 20-yard drive before punting from their own 44-yard-line. The Spartans’ defense started the season strong as the first series resulted in a one-yard loss on Western’s opening play, held them to a four-yard run the second play, and then Montae Nicholson intercepted the ball to set up MSU’s offense at Western’s 17-yard-line. Two plays later Madre London was running 24 yards for his first career touchdown that saw Michael Geiger’s kick make it 7-0 MSU.
However, disaster struck right after as Western’s Darius Phillips took Kevin Cronin’s kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to immediately tie the score up 7-7. MSU kept its cool and responded with an eight-play, 65-yard drive over the next 3:49 of game play to take back the lead. The drive included an opening 20-yard run by Gerald Holmes and a 20-yard pass completion to Macgarrett Kings Jr. to convert on third-and-11. Add in a defensive holding call on the play following Kings catch, and London proceeded to run it in for his second touchdown from the seven yards out. The Spartans failed to convert a two-point attempt, however.
The defensive unit continued its strong start, holding Western to a three-and-out and forcing a punt from Western’s 21-yard-line. The Spartan offense struck quickly again with a six-play drive, spanning 73 yard, that took just 1:41 off the clock. Aaron Burbridge came through with a huge 56-yard-catch from Cook to convert a third-and-seven from the MSU 30-yard-line and set up another touchdown on the ensuing set of downs. The Spartans scored with 1:24 left in the quarter on a nine-yard pass to Josiah Price. A Geiger kick made it 20-7 MSU for the final scoring drive of the quarter.
Western maintained possession into the second quarter. The Broncos’ seven-play, 25 yard drive ended on MSU’s 48-yard-line, however. The Spartans ensuing drive started off on a promising note. MSU drew a pass interference play on the second play of the drive, and then on the next set of downs, a holding penalty against the Broncos continued to march MSU down the field. However, the next play saw RJ Shelton lose the ball as Keion Adams forced the fumble at MSU’s 41-yard-line.
The defense came out and held Western to a three-and-out with no gain. Connor Cook came out on the ensuing drive for MSU and quickly hit Josiah Price for a 25 yard gain on the first play. Eight total plays on the drive saw MSU move the ball 80 yards for their final touchdown of the half to make it 27-7.
The Broncos got on the board again on their next drive. Their 12-play, 88-yard drive managed to eat up 5:14 off the clock and ended with a 22-yard field goal by Andrew Haldermann after Western Michigan failed to convert on two consecutive pass attempts from the three-yard-line. The Spartans had their own five-play drive, gaining just 10 yards before punting before Western ran the clock out on a six-play drive to head into the locker room.
Michigan State started the second half with a 13-play, 75-yard drive for another touchdown. The drive was capped off by two catches by DeAnthony Arnett. A 15-yard pass from Cook converted a third-and-eight from MSU’s 49-yard-line. Then later on the drive Cook connected with Arnett again for a 21-yard touchdown. The Spartans pulled ahead with another Geiger extra point to take a 34-10 lead over the Broncos.
Western Michigan finally responded big with a 15-play drive that covered 75 yards and took 7:48 off the clock. The Broncos clinched the drive off a 17-yard pass from Zach Terrell to Corey Davis for the touchdown. Halderman’s extra point was good and Western made it tighter with a score of 34-17. The Spartans responded with a five-play, 21-yard drive before being forced to punt 20 seconds into the fourth quarter.
WMU strung together another long drive, but this time the Broncos made it a quicker strike with just eight plays, going 80 yards in just 3:31. This time it was Jeremiah Mullinax catching a 29 yard pass from Terrell for the touchdown. Suddenly the Spartans were only up by 10 points as Western made it 34-24.
The final scoring drive of the game followed, as Michigan State drove 71 yards over nine plays to set up a 21-yard field goal by Michael Geiger. LJ Scott gained 17 yards on the opening play of the drive, but then Burbridge caught another big pass from Cook o nthe next play, this one good for 28 yards. When Geiger finally scored it would be the final scoring play of the game and give MSU a 37-24 lead.
Western Michigan came face to face with a tough Shilique Calhoun on their following drive as the Broncos managed to lose nine yards on a sack by MSU’s standout defensive end, before finally being forced to punt after a quick three-and-out. The Spartans fared no better as they initially gained six yards before London was tackled on second down for a loss of six. An incomplete pass forced an MSU punt.
The Broncos made it interesting as their final drive of the game marched down 83 yards over 11 plays to the seven-yard-line. However, with 1:36 left in the game and Western Michigan with a chance to bring the score within five with a two-point conversion, Vayante Copeland came up with a huge interception as he picked off Terrell in the end zone for a touchback. The Spartans managed to get a first down when LJ Scott broke free for 11 yards to convert on third-and-five and proceeded to run the clock out for the win.
This was Michigan State’s first win en route to Dantonio’s third Big Ten title, third division title, fifth 10-win season, and a College Football Playoff appearance. It was also a record setting game as MSU scored 30-plus points for its ninth straight game. The previous record was eight games between the 1978 and 1979 seasons. MSU also moved to 12-2 all time over the Broncos.