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Michigan State rallies from a 16-point deficit to beat Michigan, 37-33, in a historic, top-10 thriller

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The Spartans retain the Paul Bunyan Trophy and are now a legitimate Big Ten and College Football Playoff contender.

Michigan v Michigan State
Kenneth Walker, III: Wolverine Slayer
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Paul Bunyan will be staying in East Lansing for at least one more year. In an epic and historic matchup of top-10 teams, the Michigan State Spartans clawed back from a 16-point second half deficit to beat the Michigan Wolverines 37-33. The Spartans have now defeated the Wolverines 10 times in the last 14 games, and Coach Mel Tucker became the first Spartan head man to win his first two games against the team from Ann Arbor.

The Spartans were a bit sloppy early, committing two critical turnovers in the first half, and narrowing avoiding a third. MSU was also out-gained by the Wolverines, 552 yards to 395 yards, and struggled on third down on both sides of the ball all afternoon. But MSU also out-rushed Michigan 199 yards to 146 yards, and just like the Spartans did against Nebraska and Indiana, the Green and White made the plays when it mattered to win the game.

Michigan State started strong on its first drive, moving the ball into Michigan territory. But a bad throw into double coverage on third-down-and-five resulted in an interception near the goal line. The Spartan defense forced the Wolverines into third-and-medium deep in Michigan’s own territory, but East Lansing native Andrel Anthony caught a ball on a shallow crossing route and scampered 93 yards through the Spartan secondary for the first touchdown of the game.

The teams then traded short drives and in the Spartans’ third drive of the game, a deflected pass from Payton Thorne got intercepted near midfield. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Spartan offensive tackle Jarrett Horst resulted in the Wolverines getting the ball on MSU’s 30-yard line. But the Spartan defense held strong and forced Michigan into a field goal attempt, which left the score at 10-0 at the end of the first quarter.

The Spartans were able to answer with a five-play, 75-yard drive, culminating with a 27-yard touchdown run by Kenneth Walker III to cut the lead to only three points.

The Wolverines answered with a 10-play, 55-yard drive that ended with another field goal.

When the Spartans got the ball back, they proceeded to march down the field once again. The drive almost stalled at midfield, but a misdirection pass play on fourth-down-and-one resulted in a 40-yard completion from Thorne to Jalen Nailor. A shoestring tackle prevented the touchdown, but a quick snap on the next play caught the Wolverines off guard, and Walker streaked into the end zone to give the Spartans their first lead of the afternoon, 14-13.

The Wolverines were able to answer, however, with a methodical, six-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 17-yard touchdown pass to from J.J. McCarthy to Anthony to give the Wolverines back the lead, 20-14.

With time running out in the first half, disaster almost struck again as Thorne appeared to fumble the ball near the goal line. But video replay overturned the original call, saying that Thorne’s shin was down, and erasing the fumble and a Wolverine touchdown that occurred during the recovery,

Michigan was not done scoring for the half, though. The Maize and Blue drove into Spartan territory with time expiring and kicked a field goal to extend the lead to 23-14 at the half. At the break, the Wolverines held the edge in total yards, 333 to 219, and had two more first downs (13 to 11), but the Spartans were leading in rushing yards, 103 to 81.

The Wolverines got the ball first to start the second half. After driving the ball into MSU territory, a false start on fourth-and-one forced a Michigan punt attempt. After the Michigan punter had a little trouble with the snap, he opted to try to run for the first down. He came up just a yard short after being stopped by linebacker Quavaris Crouch, which gave the ball back to the Spartans at their own 40-yard-line.

A first-down holding penalty put the Spartans behind the sticks and resulted in a quick three-and-out. On the next Wolverine possession, the Maize and Blue struck quickly on a five-play, 54-yard drive for a touchdown to extend the lead to 30-14.

With time running out in the third quarter, the Spartans were able to mount an eight-play, 75-yard drive, including a pair of thrilling catches from Jayden Reed, which ended with a one-yard touchdown dive from Kenneth Walker. The two-point conversion attempt from Thorne to Tre Mosley was successful, and the Spartans cut the lead to 30-22.

As the fourth quarter got underway in East Lansing, the Spartan defense got a key third-down stop due to a cornerback blitz pressure from Justin White to force the punt and give Michigan State the ball back.

The Spartan offense then went to work. Eight plays into the drive, Coach Tucker and offensive coordinator Jay Johnson elected to use tempo again to catch the Wolverines off balance, and Walker rumbled 58 yards for his fourth touchdown on the day. A two-point conversion attempt from Thorne to Reed tied the game at 30 apiece.

But the Wolverines weren’t done scoring yet either. Michigan picked up a key third down on a 43-yard deep shot to Mike Sainristil from quarterback Cade McNamara to advance the ball deep into Spartan territory. The MSU defense once again held the Wolverines to a field goal, but with under 10 minutes to play, the Wolverines edged ahead, 33-30.

The final seven minutes of the game belonged to the Spartans. The Wolverines did force a three-and-out, but on the first play of the next series, a bad exchange on a handoff resulted in a fumble, which was recovered by Spartan defensive end Jacub Panasiuk. With the ball on the 41-yard-line, Michigan State drove again, and Walker found the end zone to put the Spartans up for good, 37-33.

Walker finished the game with 197 yards on 23 carries (8.6 yards per carry) and five touchdowns.

With time running out, the Wolverines drove deep into Spartan territory, but failed to convert a fourth down at the MSU 31-yard-line. After a timeout-draining three-and-out from Michigan State, Michigan had one final chance with just under two minutes to play.

The final heroics were provided by true freshman corner Chuck Brantley, who picked off a pass from McNamara to seal the 37-33 win.

Michigan State improved its record to 8-0, and with the win, established themselves as a legitimate threat in the Big Ten and for a spot in the College Football Playoffs. At the very least, a New Year’s Six bowl game is certainly in play. But in order to reach that height, the Spartans need to continue to take things one week and one game at a time. Purdue is now on the clock.

Stay tuned to The Only Colors for continuing coverage of the Spartans’ huge win over the Wolverines.