Along with a touchdown and a school-record 10 receptions for 255 yards, Michigan State wide receiver Plaxico Burress's hands hauled in respect, a chance at a Big Ten Conference title and a 34-31 victory over third-ranked Michigan for the 11th-ranked Spartans and 76,895 of their screaming fans today at Spartan Stadium.
"I just wanted to go out there and show everyone that we've got a program here, too," Burress said.
Today's victory over their in-state rivals should catapult the Spartans--preseason afterthoughts in the conference title chase, let alone the national title picture--into the top 10 in both major polls. And if they don't lose at No. 17 Purdue or at No. 20 Wisconsin in the next two weeks, the Spartans (6-0, 3-0) could find themselves in the running for one of the top two places in the Bowl Championship Series rankings when they are released for the first time this season on Oct. 25. The Anderson & Hester/Seattle Times computer rankings, which are a factor in the BCS's impenetrable calculus, had Michigan State third, and Michigan first, before today's game.
With pass-oriented Purdue on the horizon, though, the Spartans' inability to halt the Wolverines' four-wide receiver passing game in the waning moments of today's game may be significant. Michigan's offense, stymied for most of the day, came alive to score 21 points in the fourth quarter despite netting just six yards on the ground. Michigan's passing game, led by quarterback Tom Brady's 30-for-41 performance, netted 396 yards.
But next week could wait, as the student section remained to chant "over-rated" at the Wolverines (5-1, 2-1) and bask in the glow of a moment that had eluded most of them, as it had Michigan State quarterback Bill Burke, for most of their college careers.
"There's nothing like this," said Burke, who completed 21 of 36 passes for a school-record 400 yards and three touchdowns as the Spartans ended a three-game losing streak against Michigan. "It's an experience I'll remember the rest of my life."
So might nearly all of the students--some of whom began tailgating before 6 o'clock this morning. One newspaper here called today's matchup "The Perfect Game"--a reference to both teams' 5-0 records. The Wolverines and Spartans had met before when both were undefeated, but not since 1961, and never had the two teams had five wins apiece.
Despite the breathtaking, but futile, fourth-quarter comeback attempt that began with Michigan trailing 27-10 at the end of three quarters, the Wolverines played far from a perfect game. Until then, the Wolverines' points had come on an 81-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Marcus Knight and a 56-yard field goal by sophomore place kicker Hayden Esptein. Brady, who started but did not play the second quarter or most of the third, found senior fullback Aaron Shea and sophomore wide receiver David Terrell for fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Although Burress had just the one touchdown catch, other big plays set up touchdowns for Michigan State by 255-pound freshman tailback-linebacker T.J. Duckett, senior tailback Lloyd Clemons and senior flanker Gari Scott.
The Wolverines' defense, which had seemed to coalesce one week ago, when it shut down Purdue's spread offense, had no answer for Burress. The 6-foot-6 sophomore made several of his catches while closely covered. He simply outreached Michigan's shorter defenders, the tallest of whom, senior safety Tommy Hendricks, still gave up four inches to him.
"I was feeling like no one was going to stop me," Burress said.
"There isn't really anything you can do to stop him," said Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr, whose team could have headed into its off week with only Indiana, Illinois and Northwestern--three of the Big Ten's four unranked teams--between it and a 9-0 record going into its game Nov. 13 at No. 2 Penn State.
"I'm just so happy," Burress said. "For myself and my team."