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Michigan vs. Michigan State: 5 Most Exciting Top 25 Matchups in the Past 25 Years

Paul Bunyan Trophy, Michigan Wolverines Football on Oct. 20, 2018

For the first time in more than 50 years, the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy between Michigan and Michigan State will be a top-10 showdown

This week, the Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State Spartans will renew their longstanding rivalry. While these teams have played each other 113 times previously (Michigan leads 71-37-5), this will be the ninth encounter that both the Wolverines and Spartans are undefeated entering their grudge match in the past 25 seasons. It also will be the first time since 1964 when both are in the top 10.

The following are the most exciting of those matchups of top-25 teams. Their record and rank in the Associated Press poll prior to the game are indicated. These memorable contests are listed in chronological order.

No. 3 Michigan (5-0) at No. 11 Michigan State (5-0)
Oct. 9, 1999  East Lansing, Mich.
Final Score: Spartans 34, Wolverines 31

Midway through the first quarter, Bill Burke completed a 68-yard flea-flicker to Plaxico Burress to set up the Spartans at Michigan’s one-yard line. T.J. Duckett plunged into the end zone on the next play. Both teams added a field goal in the second quarter. Drew Henson, splitting series with Tom Brady, fired an 81-yard completion to Marcus Knight with less than four minutes remaining in the first half. The Spartans responded with a 43-yard field goal on the final play to take the 13-10 advantage into halftime.

In the third quarter, Burke threw a 19-yard touchdown to Gari Scott during MSU’s second possession. Aric Morris picked off Henson, returning it to the Wolverines’ 18-yard line. Three plays later, Burke connected with Burress again to expand the lead to 27-10.

Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr then re-inserted Brady at quarterback, and he immediately moved the Wolverines down the field. Early in the fourth, a two-yard touchdown run by Anthony Thomas cut into the lead. Michigan State responded with a six-play scoring drive sparked by Scott’s 35-yard catch and was capped off by a 14-yard rumble to pay dirt by Dawan Moss. Brady then took over, connecting with David Terrell on a 19-yard touchdown pass and then Aaron Shea from eight yards out on the next drive to make it a three-point game. But the Michigan comeback fell short when Burress, who broke the school record for receiving yards in a game with 255, recovered the attempted on-side kick with 2:47 remaining.

No. 11 Michigan (7-2) at No. 9 Michigan State (7-1)
Nov. 1, 2003 — East Lansing, Mich.
Final Score: Wolverines 27, Spartans 20

After a scoreless first quarter, Michigan put the first touchdown on the board early in the second with Chris Perry capping off a 55-yard drive with a one-yard TD plunge. The Wolverines followed that up with a 40-yard scoring strike from John Navarre to Braylon Edwards. In between those touchdowns, Michigan State struggled on offense, as a 74-yard drive that took up more than five minutes on the clock ended with a field goal. The Spartans had an opportunity for three points at the end of the half, but the kick missed.

Both teams picked up the scoring in the second half. Michigan struck first, with Navarre and Andy Mignery hooking up for a 26-yard touchdown. Michigan State answered quickly as quarterback Jeff Smoker and Agim Shabaj combined for a 73-yard touchdown. The Wolverines then chewed up more than 15 minutes on their subsequent drive, which culminated with Edwards' second TD catch. The Spartans then got a 56-yard kickoff return by DeAndra Cobb to set them up at Michigan 39, but could only manage a field goal to make it a 27-13 game.

On the Wolverines' next possession, with his team right on the doorstep of the red zone, Navarre fumbled the ball, which Clifford Dukes scooped up and ran back 65 yards to make it a one-score game. Michigan State forced Michigan to punt on its next drive and got the ball back at its own 20 with 1:06 left. But the comeback attempt fell short when Smoker was intercepted by the Wolverines' Scott McClintock on the final play.

No. 11 Michigan (6-0) at No. 23 Michigan State (4-1)
Oct. 15, 2011 — East Lansing, Mich.
Final Score: Spartans 28, Wolverines 14

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Each team scored a touchdown on the first possession. They then spent the rest of the first half punting the ball to each other. Michigan State got the ball first in the third quarter and made the most of it, with Kirk Cousins finding Keyshawn Martin for a 10-yard touchdown. That combination did it again, this time from 13 yards, right before the end of the quarter to give the Spartans a 21-7 lead.

The fourth quarter produced wild swings of emotion for both sides. After forcing a three-and-out deep in Michigan State territory, Michigan got an 18-yard punt return from Jeremy Gallon followed by a 34-yard touchdown pass from Denard Robinson to Roy Roundtree for their first score since its opening drive of the game. Martin then fumbled the ball on the Spartans' next play, giving the Wolverines the ball on Michigan's State 32 with a little more than nine minutes on the clock.

However, Johnny Adams sacked Robinson for a 10-yard loss on fourth-and-1 from the nine-yard line to give the ball back to the Spartans. Robinson got another shot following a Michigan State punt, but Isaiah Lewis picked him off and ran it back 39 yards to seal the Spartans' upset over the previously undefeated Wolverines.

No. 7 Michigan State (6-0) at No. 12 Michigan (5-1)
Oct. 17, 2015 — Ann Arbor, Mich.
Final Score: Spartans 27, Wolverines 23

After a scoreless first quarter, Michigan’s Sione Houma plowed in from two yards to put the Wolverines ahead. The teams then traded punts but a short one by Michigan set the Spartans up in Wolverines territory and three plays later, LJ Scott took it in from 11 yards out to the game. Jabrill Peppers returned the subsequent kickoff 49 yards and Michigan was able to kick a 38-yard field goal to retake the lead.

It stayed that way until a curious call by Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio to go for it on fourth-and-8 from his own 31 backfired as the Wolverines held and four plays later, Houma punched it in again. Now down 17-7, Connor Cook answered with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Macgarrett Kings Jr. Michigan then put together a 10-play drive that ended with a short field goal.

The score stayed 20-14 in favor of the home team into the fourth quarter, when the Wolverines had another short field thanks to a defensive stop and short punt coupled with another Peppers return, but the offense could only muster eight yards and a 38-yard field goal increased the lead to nine. Cook wasted no time in responding, connecting with Trevon Pendleton for 74 yards to set up Scott's one-yard touchdown on the next play.

Despite the momentum, it seemed that Michigan State would lose the game after being a turnover on downs with 1:42 left. But with 10 seconds left, Michigan lined up to punt when Blake O’Neill bobbled the snap and then fumbled the ball trying to recover. Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped it up and ran it back 38 yards for the stunning, game-winning touchdown as the clock expired.

No. 6 Michigan (6-1) at No. 24 Michigan State (4-2)
Oct. 20, 2018 — East Lansing, Mich.
Final Score: Wolverines 21, Spartans 7

The only points of the first half occurred on the first play of the second quarter. Nico Collins hauled in a pass from Shea Patterson for a six-yard touchdown. Meanwhile, Michigan State’s seven possessions ended with six punts and the end of the half.

The second half hardly provided any offensive highlights. During the Wolverines’ first possession, Chris Evans fumbled. After Brandon Bouyer-Randle recovered the ball at Michigan’s seven-yard line, the Spartans needed two plays to reach the end zone, courtesy of Brian Lewerke’s four-yard pass to Darrell Stewart Jr. After forcing a three-and-out, MSU fumbled away the ball. Michigan fumbled it back five plays later. But the Wolverines finally connected on a big play, with Patterson hooking up with Donovan Peoples-Jones for 79 yards and a touchdown. Following a Spartans punt, Michigan drove 84 yards to tack on a third touchdown, a five-yard run by Ben Mason. Michigan State could not answer with either of its final two drives.  

— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.