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The most memorable moments from the Michigan State vs. Michigan football rivalry

Before Michigan State faces off with Michigan this week, let’s revisit this historic rivalry.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Michigan State and Michigan go way back. Back to 1898 as a matter of fact, when Michigan State University was still named Michigan Agricultural College. However, it wasn’t until 1945 that MSU and Michigan played every year; not until 1953 did MSU join the Big Ten.

The all-time record between the two schools favors Michigan, 71-38-5. Since the Paul Bunyan Trophy was introduced in 1953, Michigan holds only a 38-29-2 lead.

Since Mark Dantonio took over as head coach of Michigan State in 2007, MSU has a clear foothold on the rivalry, winning 10 of the 15 meetings since then.

In 2015, Jim Harbaugh’s first season as Michigan head coach, MSU upset Michigan in Ann Arbor after a botched snap on the last play of the game. In 2001, Michigan State scored the winning touchdown as time expired. But the first big meeting came between the two schools in 1956 when Michigan State was ranked nationally at No. 2. Michigan was ranked at No. 5. A fumble and an interception led to a Michigan State victory, 9-0.

This season, the rivalry looks quite different in 2022. MSU is starting to reap the woes of the final recruiting classes that Dantonio had. The pass defense has looked abysmal, quarterback Payton Thorne has been inconsistent and third-year head coach Mel Tucker is being questioned for his staff.

Meanwhile, Michigan is undefeated with major wins against Iowa and Penn State. Nationally, Michigan is ranked No. 4 behind Tennessee (No. 3), Ohio State (No. 2) and Georgia (No. 1).

While this season may not be the best of all-time, or even better than last season was, it still weighs a lot for both teams.

Michigan State faces off against Michigan this Saturday at Michigan Stadium at 7:30 p.m. on ABC.

Here is a list of the best moments in the rivalry.

1990: No. One vs. No One

Maybe I wasn’t alive for this one, but I’ve definitely watched the replay. Dubbed the “No. One vs. No One” game, it ended in a 28-27 victory for the unranked Michigan State Spartans and one of its greatest upsets in school history.

With six seconds left, Michigan finished off a 13-play, 70-yard scoring drive with a touchdown by receiver Derrick Alexander. But instead of tying the game at 28-all, Michigan head coach Gary Moeller wanted to go for two points, and the win.

Quarterback Elvis Grbac threw the ball to a wide open Desmond Howard, who ran a slant on the left side of the end zone. Howard dropped the pass and that was history.

Michigan had another chance when it recovered the onside kick, but Grbac threw a jump ball to the 5-yard-line and Michigan State intercepted the ball. Game over.

1997: Six interceptions and a national championship

The matchup between No. 5 Michigan at No. 15 Michigan State in front of an ESPN College Gameday crowd was something. The Wolverines won 23-7.

I’ve often said that defensive players rarely deserve to win the Heisman. Charles Woodson was one of those players who did. He was generational. Defensive players aren’t commonly known to be major impact players like Woodson was, but I’m fairly certain that without him, Michigan doesn’t win a national title.

Michigan had six interceptions that day and two can be credited to Woodson. That win kept Michigan’s hopes alive for a share of the eventual championship.

1999: Record day for Bill Burke

Another top-15 matchup between No. 11 Michigan State and No. 3 Michigan.

MSU quarterback Bill Burke set the single-game program record for passing yards with 400. This record would later be broken by Brian Lewerke in 2017 (445 yards). Wide receiver Plaxico Burress had a record-setting game as well with 255 receiving yards. That record would be broken in by Charles Rogers in 2001 against Fresno State (270 yards).

MSU opened a 27-10 cushion in the third quarter, but Tom Brady put together three nice scoring drives in the fourth quarter. After MSU recovered the onside kick, the Spartans were able to run out the clock and win, 34-31.

The victory gave Michigan State its first 6-0 start since winning the national championship in 1966. It was also Nick Saban’s final win over Michigan while at Michigan State.

2001: Clockgate

Michigan State did not look great against No. 6 Michigan that year. But the Spartans did receive the ball down 24-20 with less than three minutes to go in the final quarter. A Michigan face-mask penalty resulted in a 15-yard foul and an automatic first down. Two plays later, MSU also benefited from a Michigan penalty, having too many men on the field.

With 17 seconds remaining, quarterback Jeff Smoker tried scrambling for a winning touchdown but was stopped at Michigan’s 1-yard-line. MSU rushed to the line and spiked the ball with one second left. Many Michigan fans thought that the final second was longer than a full second would have been.

On the next play, Smoker threw a touchdown pass to T.J. Duckett and MSU defeated Michigan by a final score of 26-24.

This game was so controversial that the Big Ten changed its timekeeping policies for the following season in which the conference appointed a neutral official to control the clock, thanks to the guy known as “Spartan Bob.”

2004: 27-10 comeback for Michigan

The game was bleak for No. 12 Michigan early in Ann Arbor. By the fourth quarter, unranked Michigan State had built up a 27-10 lead.

The following chain of events occurred.

Michigan kicks a field goal, cutting MSU’s lead to 27-13; Michigan recovers the onside kick; Michigan scored a touchdown and kicks the extra point, cutting the deficit to 27-20; Michigan State is forced to punt on the next drive; Michigan scores a touchdown, tying the game.

The Wolverines scored 17 points in under four minutes. Thanks to a missed field goal by Michigan, the game was forced into overtime for the first time in series history. Both teams traded two consecutive touchdowns until Michigan’s third score was left unanswered by Michigan State. Michigan won 45-37 in three overtimes. Braylon Edwards recorded 11 catches for 189 yards and three touchdowns, including the eventual game-winner.

2007: The “Little Brother” game

Michigan quarterback Chad Henne threw two touchdown passes to overcome a 10-point fourth quarter deficit and win the game. The final score: No. 15 Michigan 28, Michigan State 24.

Of course, that’s not really why people remember this game. It was because of the comments from Michigan running back Mike Hart.

“I was just laughing,” Hart, who went 4-0 against Michigan State while at Michigan, said. “I thought it was funny. They got excited. It’s good. Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you’re playing basketball and you let him get the lead. Then you come back and take it from him.”

Then Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio famously had his reply.

“Let’s just remember, pride comes before the fall,” Dantonio said. “They want to mock us, I’m telling them, it’s not over. They want to print that crap all over their locker room, it’s not over and it’ll never be over here. It’s just starting.

“I’m very proud of our football team, and I’m very proud of the way our football team handled themselves after the game as well. You don’t have to disrespect people. If they want to make a mockery of it, so be it. Their time will come.”

Starting with 2008, Dantonio led MSU to victories in seven of the next eight games.

2012: Gibbons’ kick

Michigan won two games during the 2008-2017 decade. This was the team’s first. It was anxiety-inducing, too.

The Wolverines won this solely on the leg of kicker Brendan Gibbons, who kicked four field goals, including one with five seconds remaining in the game to win the game 12-10. Quarterback Denard Robinson took a knee on the sideline in prayer instead of watching Gibbons split the uprights.

It was Michigan’s 900th win as a program.

2015: Trouble with the snap

No. 12 Michigan was 12 seconds away from making No. 7 Michigan State a one-loss team. All that was standing between Michigan and a victory was a punt. What unfolded next is a miracle.

Michigan punter Blake O’Neill had the ball bounce off of his hands. Ballistically, the famous play-by-play line queued up: “He has trouble with the snap!”

O’Neill attempted to pick the ball back up after mishandling it but it went straight to Jalen Watts-Jackson who returned it for a 38-yard touchdown.

Memes and GIFs of the final play quickly circulated the internet. Michigan State won 27-23.

2021: Undefeated top-10 matchup and K9’s comeback

Both teams, No. 6 Michigan and No. 8 MSU, came into this game undefeated. Both were coming off of two-win seasons in 2020. MSU had a second-year head coach in Mel Tucker who was shocking the college football world.

Quickly, Michigan built up a 23-14 lead at halftime, which grew to 30-14 in the third quarter. But Michigan State wasn’t done.

Star running back Kenneth Walker III ran for 197 yards and five touchdowns en route to one of the biggest comebacks in Michigan State history. Walker became the player with the most rushing touchdowns against Michigan and Tucker became the first MSU head coach to start 2-0 against Michigan.

The Spartans won 37-33.

Honorable mention, 2013: Michigan State holds Michigan to -48 rushing yards in 29-6 victory.