EAST LANSING, Mich. — The offense went in the opposite direction. The field position was, to put it politely, unspectacular. Even when the Michigan football team had a chance to put together a game-changing drive, it couldn’t protect its own quarterback.
At Spartan Stadium on Saturday, the bottom fell out on the No. 23 Wolverines in a 29-6 loss to No. 24 Michigan State.
“When it came down to it, we couldn’t pick it up,” Michigan captain Taylor Lewan said. “That’s our job.”
Behind Connor Cook’s 252 yards passing and a defense that put Michigan’s erratic running game into negative yardage, Michigan State (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten) scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to stretch a 10-point lead (16-6) to 23 and strengthened its Legends Division lea
"We believe in our offense," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "We've got a quarterback who's resilient, who can make plays. He's young; he's still growing with a big opportunity to grow this game. We've got our receivers catching the football. We've got a running back running, a couple guys in there, and our offensive line is playing pretty well.
"There's a certain amount of talent out there, but when you tack on confidence and the belief in the system and each other, great things are possible. I think we saw that today."
Michigan (6-2, 2-2), meanwhile, did its share of navel-gazing after its fifth loss in six seasons to the Spartans.
Lewan blamed the offensive line for not protecting quarterback Devin Gardner, whom the Spartans sacked seven times for a loss of 49 yards.
“I feel bad for him,” Lewan said. “That’s on us. That’s on the offensive line, protecting our running back and protecting our guy.
The Wolverines finished with negative-48 yards rushing, and only Fitzgerald Toussaint finished with positive rushing yardage (eight carries for 20 yards). They only penetrated the red zone twice and reached the MSU 15-yard line in the fourth quarter before Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard intercepted Gardner at the Spartans 3.
The loss, the Wolverines said, came down to a lack of execution. It’s plagued them throughout the season.
“There’s opportunities that we had, and we didn’t capitalize,” linebacker Desmond Morgan said.
“I’m not thinking of one play, in specific. It’s holding the rope on both sides of the ball.”
Michigan did not make Gardner (14-27-1 passing, 210 yards) available to speak with the media after the loss.
"He got pounded a little bit,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who is 1-2 against the Spartans at Michigan. “He was a warrior out there that last drive before the interception at the end. He did a nice job getting us down the field. He had taken a lot of shots earlier in the game. He just was a little bit worn out.”
The Spartans and Wolverines traded field goals to end the first quarter tied at 3-3, and Michael Geiger’s second field goal of the game gave the Spartans a 6-3 lead with 11:19 left in the half.
UM went 57 yards on six plays in their only drive of the second quarter, but answered with Brendan Gibbons' 39-yard field goal, which banked off the right upright and tied the game with 3:22 left in the half.
Nearly three minutes later, Bennie Fowler's 14-yard touchdown catch late in the first half helped the Spartans to a 13-6 lead.
"That was a disappointing drive at the end of the half,” Hoke said. “You go crazy. You give up points right at the end of the half, and it’s disappointing.”
Geiger's 35-yard field goal in the third gave the Spartans a 16-6 lead and the Wolverines had a chance to shrink that lead with 2:08 left in the third when Raymon Taylor intercepted Cook and set the Wolverines up at the Spartans 41-yard-line.
The Spartans sacked Gardner twice on the ensuing three-play drive and allowed UM just 54 yards in the fourth quarter.
“There were some pretty good runs once in a while, but when you snap the ball for a 20-yard loss and get sacked I don't know how many times, your yardage part of it isn't very good,” Hoke said. “You put yourself behind the eight ball, not executing and then you're forced into doing things you don't want to do."
In the game’s final minutes, Gardner sat on the sidelines, huddled in a heavy team jacket. Defensive end Frank Clark, whose unit surrendered nearly 400 yards to the Spartans, sat by himself on the sideline as the Spartan Stadium crowd chanted farewell to the Wolverines.
With under a minute left, quarterback Andrew Maxwell entered in place of Cook, if only for posterity.
Seconds after the final horn, the Spartans paraded the Paul Bunyan Trophy on the field and a few minutes later, Lewan lamented the state of his team.
“This is going to sting for a little bit,” Michigan’s captain said. “That’s what happens.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.