2001 game still sore spot for Wolverines
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When Brady Hoke and Jordan Kovacs think about the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, the same game comes to mind.
It isn't the one you would think -- last year's 28-14 loss in East Lansing, when Hoke was a first-year head coach of the Wolverines and Kovacs was his star defensive back.
They flash back to 2001, when Hoke was a defensive assistant coach and Kovacs was an 11-year-old Wolverines fan in the stands at Spartan Stadium. The game went back and forth all afternoon, with seven lead changes and a tie, but it's the final drive that both men remember.
The Spartans got the ball with 2:28 to play near midfield, trailing 24-20. They converted two fourth downs and were helped by a key penalty when the Wolverines had 12 defenders on the field. With 17 seconds left, Jeff Smoker tried to score on a bootleg but was stopped in bounds at the Michigan 2 ... and that's when the game became famous.
Smoker got the Spartans lined up and spiked the ball with one second left on the clock -- the most controversial second in the rivalry's history. Michigan fans, including Kovacs, have always been convinced that the Spartan Stadium scoreboard operator stopped the clock early in order to give Michigan State a chance at a final fourth down.
"Don't get me started about that game," Kovacs said Monday, as Michigan-Michigan State week kicked off. "That was a long second."
With the extra play, Smoker hit T.J. Duckett in the back of the end zone for a touchdown, breaking the heart of one young fan.
"I was so disgusted that I just ran out of the stadium," Kovacs said. "It was a mile to our car, and I ran the whole way.
"I was there with my dad, and I don't think either of us said a single word on the entire drive home. We were both just disgusted."
For Hoke, the painful memory came a few minutes earlier, when the defense was called for having too many players on the field.
"I remember the 12 men on the field, and I remember the coach that was responsible for that substitution -- me," he said.
Hoke joked that he did get to keep his job, "barely."
When asked for his most vivid memory of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, Hoke immediately said the 2001 game and admits that even a victory on Saturday wouldn't change that.
"Losses always hurt more than a win feels good," he said. "Would a win be my most pleasurable memory of playing them? Sure.
"But I don't think a win is ever going to be your most vivid memory. Those are always losses."
When it comes to the 2012 game, everyone in the Michigan camp insists that the current four-game losing streak isn't going to be on their mind.
"The past is the past," Kovacs said. "In a rivalry game, that doesn't matter. You play these games hard no matter what happened last year or the year before. This is a big game, and we're going to play it that way."
Denard Robinson also toed the official Michigan line, insisting that the Wolverines were going to treat Saturday like any other game, even if they could end the losing streak and pick up the 900th victory in school history along the way.
"This game is personal because every game is personal," he said. "This is another championship game, and we want to win. That's true every week.
"Winning nine hundred games is a great accomplishment, but our focus is on winning number five."
Robinson, of course, isn't a native Michigander, so his concept of the rivalry is based off another pair of state schools.
"I grew up in Florida, so for me, the big game was always Florida against Florida State," he said. "That was always a big game, and it was always hard-fought and it usually came right down to the end.
"That's how I think about us and Michigan State."
In the end, no matter how much Hoke and his captains protest, there's a reason that Schembechler Hall has a clock counting down the seconds to Saturday's game.
No one wants to be on the first Michigan team to lose five straight games to the Spartans.