Rocky Lombardi’s four-letter swear word slip-up during his postgame interview was understandable.
Let’s be honest, you likely used one yourself. Maybe something a little more PG-13, like, “How the hell did that just happen?”
How did a new starting quarterback and a rookie receiver carve apart Michigan’s secondary?
How did the Wolverines — a 21½-point favorite (at their lowest) at Michigan Stadium — look so disinterested at the start and so unconcerned late, down four points as time flowed off the clock?
How did Mel Tucker outthink, outscheme and outcoach Jim Harbaugh in his own house to become just the second Michigan State coach in history — and first since Nick Saban 25 years ago this week — to beat U-M in his first try?
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Most of all, how the hell did the Spartans, just a week after losing to Rutgers — Rutgers! — while giving the ball away seven times — seven times! — dominate No. 14 Michigan from start to finish, without a turnover, in a 27-24 shocker and one of the biggest upsets in the history of the rivalry?
One word: Belief.
“I know we were three-touchdown underdogs,” Lombardi said. “But everybody on this team knew going into the game that we had a chance and we had a good chance. That was part of the reason why we played with so much confidence and ended up getting the win.”
It may have been one of the biggest oddities in a 2020 college football season filled with them. Not only did Tucker became the first MSU coach whose first victory with the Spartans came against the Wolverines, he joined Mark Dantonio (2008) and George Perles (1984) as the only MSU coaches to win their first visit to Ann Arbor. Those victories came in their second seasons — Tucker took over in February, didn’t get spring workouts due to the pandemic and wasn’t able to hold a practice with actual tackling until a month ago.
Yet his name goes right alongside his mentor, Saban, whose 1995 team came off a big loss to Wisconsin to stun the Wolverines, 28-25, in East Lansing.
And it was a carryover of what Dantonio built during his 13-year tenure. A tough-minded performance with precise execution and (mostly) controlled aggression, it harkened back to some of the Spartans’ best performances under the former coaches who Tucker joins in the record book.
“I just thought that they were ready to play a physical, 60-minute, four-quarter game and did that,” Tucker said. “And we’re just proud to bring that Paul Bunyan trophy back to East Lansing where it belongs, State fans, this one’s for you.”
Forget the raw data from this. The Wolverines totaled more yards on offense, including on the ground, generally a significant predictor in this rivalry. They ran 16 more plays, had eight more first downs and dominated time of possession by more than 7½ minutes.
But both the scoreboard and the eye test agree: MSU (1-1) looked like the better team from start to finish, for several reasons.
The biggest? Rocky to Ricky — Ricky White, that is.
As in the former three-star recruit from Marietta, Georgia, who signed up to play for Dantonio. As in the newcomer whose 196 receiving yards in place of injured Tre Mosley shattered the MSU rookie record and tied for seventh in school history.
“All week, we’ve been focused on this game. coach Tucker, (wide receiver coach Courtney Hawkins), shout outs to every coach on the coaching staff,” said White, who had eight catches. “We’ve really been focused on this game. We knew how important it was for them, so we just wanted to go out and play for them.”
White’s breakout performance allowed Lombardi, who spent the past two years as Brian Lewerke’s understudy and only got into last season’s 44-10 beatdown loss on the punt unit — to win his first start against Michigan (1-1).
New offensive coordinator Jay Johnson let Lombardi air it out, and the redshirt junior hit five passes of 30 yards or more, including a 30-yard scoring pass to white that got the Spartans on the board a little over 4 minutes into the game.
“Ricky’s a player, but we got dogs all over the field. I mean, people are making plays left and right,” said Lombardi, who was 17-of-32 passing for 323 yards, the third-most yards by an MSU quarterback in the rivalry. “Today was Ricky’s day. But who knows, tomorrow it could be somebody else. We got a bunch of playmakers, you’re gonna have to cover all them.”
That TD pass to White was set up by a 28-yard run by Jordon Simmons, and the MSU ground game churned out a respectable 123 yards, forcing U-M to pay attention. Just as important, the backs and offensive line did not allow a sack.
“We need to be able to run the ball and throw the ball efficiently,” Tucker said. “You never want to be one-dimensional, especially with the team that has a good defense with really good pass-rushers.”
Johnson also got Connor Heyward a pair of touchdown catches out of the backfield, with his 13-yarder with 5:11 left capping a 4-minute, 37-second march that covered 92 yards in 11 plays.
Defensively, the Spartans kept Michigan quarterback Joe Milton and the rest of the U-M offense from making big plays. Despite outgaining MSU 452-449 and Milton throwing for 300 yards, the Wolverines managed just two plays of 20-plus yards — both passes — and none longer than 26 yards.
All three of Michigan’s touchdown drives came on drives of four-plus minutes. That included a 4-minute, 34-second trudge — 18 plays to cover 93 yards after Heyward’s score — that lacked urgency or tempo.
“They went out there on the field with, what, five minutes left and they didn’t get off the field until like 40 (seconds),” Antjuan Simmons said. “It was definitely a grinder grinder series. We just kind of had to tough it out and keep playing and keep fighting. We just did what we had to do.”
That left just 37 seconds for a Michigan miracle. They’ve happened in this stadium before, of course, with less time. But Heyward smothered the onside kick, and Lombardi decided on fourth down — with 23 seconds remaining and the ball at Michigan’s 36 — to go for the sneak when he saw an opening. He needed a yard.
He got three.
MSU’s sideline erupted in celebration. It spilled quickly into the locker room, where Tucker got involved with the postgame dancing around the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
“We haven’t had Paul in the locker room for (three) years now,” Lombardi said. “We really wanted that game.”