The Paul Bunyan Trophy. To Michigan State fans, this is what they play for each year. To University of Michigan fans, this is the 2nd most important game of the year, only to Ohio State, which is usually played for the Big Ten title. Sorry Spartans, that’s just how it goes.
1990 was an odd year in college football. The season ended with a split national title between Colorado and Georgia Tech. Colorado was helped along by the famous 5th down against Missouri, and what Notre Dame fans call the “phantom clip” in the Orange Bowl, which negated a 91 yard, game winning, and national title winning, touchdown from Raghib Ismail. The controversy surrounding the season led to the creation of the Bowl Coalition, the prototype for the BCS.
I was 14 years old, and getting the chance to see my first Michigan v. Michigan State game at the Big House in Ann Arbor. I had watched the games on TV, and school was always heated the week before this game, because my friends and I were always split pretty evenly. This was bragging rights for the rest of the year. Even though I had been to some big games, I still could not be prepared for the atmosphere that awaited us in Ann Arbor that day.
Michigan was coming into the game 3-1 and ranked #1 in the nation. The fact that a one-loss team was #1 after week four should have been an indication as to the kind of wild season 1990 ended up being. For Michigan, this was the first season since 1968 that Bo Schembechler was not patrolling the sidelines, and throwing his head phones, hat, and whatever else he could get a hold of. There was pressure on Gary Moeller to follow in the steps of a legend. His offense featured 3 sophomores – Elvis Grbac at quarterback, Derrick Alexander at wide receiver, and Desmond Howard at wide receiver. Nobody knew who these guys were, or what impact they would have in the future. The star of the offense was running back Jon Vaughn (who was a typical “between the tackles” Michigan running back in the style of Chris Perry, Tim Biakabatuka, Chris Howard, and Leroy Hoard), along with a massive offensive line. Moeller installed a no-huddle offense, which at the time was being used heavily by Sam Wyche and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Michigan State came in unranked with a 1-2-1 record, behind their veteran coach George Perles. They had just graduated several key players in the prior two years, and were working with several relatively unknown guys with a decent amount of talent. Their quarterback was Dan Enos, who was a slick, shifty, smart quarterback. He didn’t have a great arm, but made up for it with good decisions. They also had a two-headed monster at running back – Tico Duckett and Hyland Hickson. Both of them were sturdy, quick, hard-hitting runners who could wear down a defense.
Both teams started the game by going right down field and scoring a touchdown. Michigan used a mix of pass and run to move the ball, while the Spartans ran the ball right down the throat of the Michigan defense, with Enos running a quarterback keeper for the score. Later in the first, Michigan was again driving when they got first and goal on the Spartan 3 yard line. After 4 runs out of the wish-bone, Michigan turned the ball over on downs at the MSU 1-yard line. After this, the game turned into a typical “3 yards and a cloud of dust” Big Ten football match-up. Both teams were focused on the run primarily, and they were hitting each other hard.
Another thing to mention came in the 2nd quarter, when time was running down on the half, and MSU had the ball. With about 26 seconds left, Enos was pressured into throwing an interception. Immediately, Grbac threw a deep route to Desmond Howard, and Michigan had a chip-shot field goal attempt going into half-time. They missed. I remember thinking at the time that those 3 points were going to prove costly in the end.
The third quarter again saw the teams trade touchdowns, making the score 14-14 going into the 4th quarter. The moment the game turned is easy to find – it was when Elvis Grbac threw an interception near midfield. This gave MSU momentum, and they used it. It is odd how little I remember of the prior 3 quarters of this game, but the 4th seems to go on forever in my mind, as I watch both teams march up and down the field and beat each other up. I would swear to you that the teams score more points than they did, because of the action and intensity, but somehow I have managed to blow it up in my mind.
Michigan State scored on a 26-yard run from Hyland Hickson to make the game 21-14, in favor of the Spartans. Next, they kicked off to Desmond Howard, who caught the ball at the 5 yard line, and sprinted 95 yards for a touchdown. When I think of the most electric moment I have ever seen in sports, this is it. Michigan Stadium at this time was not considered a loud stadium, but I swear the place exploded, and the noise was deafening. A lightning storm could not have added more electricity to the stadium than it had at that moment. It was simply magical. This is the play that made me a die-hard college football fan.
UM then kicked off to the Spartans, and MSU proceeded to again run the ball down the throats of the Wolverines. They were doing a good job of killing time while also getting into scoring range. Tico Duckett finally scored a touchdown with 1:59 left on the clock.
Michigan now got the ball back down by 7. With a young quarterback and receiving unit, we had no clue how they would respond. Grbac managed to convert two 4th down plays and one 3rd down play as they moved down field to get within striking range. With 6 seconds left, Grbac threw to Derrick Alexander in the end zone for the touchdown. Now the decision was 1 point or 2.
Since this was before overtime in college, a tie for the number 1 team in the nation did nothing for that team. There was no doubt Michigan was going for the win. They lined up with 3 wide receivers, and put one in motion to isolate Desmond Howard on the left side. When the ball was snapped, Howard put a great move on the corner, who fell down. As he was falling, he reached out and grabbed Howard’s ankle, causing Howard to stumble. The ball hit Howard in the chest as he was falling, and when he hit the ground, the ball also squirted out. The referees called an incomplete pass. The problem was, Michigan fans 1) thought it was a catch, and 2) thought it was pass-interference. There were fans on the field, and confusion everywhere. This was also before instant replay. The refs stuck to their call, and debate continues to this day, although the scoreboard will never change. I still claim it was the worst no-call I have ever seen in my life (and yes, it was worse than “Clockgate”). Spartan fans have no idea what I am talking about.
That is what I love about rivalry games. 19 years later, and the play sticks out in my head just as clearly as when it happened. Games like that also keep the rivalry vital even if the two teams are not at their best year after year. Bring on the Michigan v. Michigan State game, 2009 edition!