Antjuan Simmons kept his eyes on Hassan Haskins the entire time.
The Michigan running back lined up at quarterback in the wildcat for a second straight time. A play earlier, he had taken the direct snap, shuffled into the middle of the line and quickly gotten swallowed up by Michigan State’s Dashaun Mallory.
On third-and-4 with about 3 minutes left before halftime Saturday, Haskins caught the ball again, shuffled to his right, then cocked the ball in his right arm. With defensive tackle Jalen Hunt in his face, the Wolverine lofted a looping toss toward Carter Selzer, free behind the Spartans’ defense.
Simmons took five steps toward Haskins, then quickly changed direction and, off a one-step backpedal, leaped at the goal line. The 6-foot, 225-pound senior linebacker reached his right arm skyward and caught just enough air to tip the ball. He nearly intercepted it, but Selzer knocked it away.
Michigan settled for a field goal, making Simmons' play not only the difference between three points and seven, but also the difference in MSU’s 27-24 victory at Michigan Stadium.
And it allowed Simmons, the senior from Ann Arbor who went to school across the street at Pioneer High, to beat the Wolverines for the second time in his career.
“Definitely happy. definitely excited,” Simmons said after the game. “I said it last week after the (Rutgers) game that we would be a better team this weekend. I said that, I meant it. … I made sure that everybody knew that we were going to a big game, a big rivalry game, and we had to play for 60 minutes. This game went all the way up until the very last play.”
Simmons, who served as a de facto captain for the second straight game, tied fellow linebacker Noah Harvey with a team-high 11 tackles, equaling his personal best. He also had two of MSU’s seven pass breakups.
“The most important thing getting ready for big rival games like this is to have a great week of practice, be focused, locked in. And you also need to have a physical week of practice, because the most physical team wins this game,” Simmons said. “And I felt like we out-physicaled them today. So I can't be any happier with outcome. Paulie B is back with us.”
It wasn’t just the stars who played key roles for the Spartans in the upset.
• Sophomore cornerback Kalon Gervin also had two pass breakups and two tackles, and he was a physical presence against Michigan’s receivers.
• The foursome of Mallory, Hunt, Naquan Jones and Jacob Slade at defensive tackle disrupted the Wolverines in the middle of the line of scrimmage. Their five combined tackles do not accurately reflect how they were able to penetrate at the point of attack and collapse the pocket around U-M quarterback Joe Milton.
• Defensive end Jacub Panasiuk, after a lackluster performance in MSU’s 38-27 loss to Rutgers, was hot from the outset Saturday. He finished with four tackles but chased Milton all day.
• On the offensive line, sophomore Nick Samac stepped in for injured Matt Allen and kept quarterback Rocky Lombardi clean while carving creases in the run game. He also made a couple key blocks, one at the line of scrimmage to spring Jordon Simmons for 28 yards on the first scoring drive, then another downfield on a screen pass that Connor Heyward took in for the final touchdown with 5:11 to play.
• The entire offensive line improved, helping generate holes for 126 yards rushing one week after gaining just 50 against Rutgers. Left tackle AJ Arcuri and right tackle Kevin Jarvis occupied Michigan defensive ends Kwity Paye and Aiden Hutchinson all afternoon as the Spartans did not allow a sack.
• Walk-on redshirt freshman receiver Cade McDonald, a high school teammate of backup quarterback Payton Thorne, made the first two catches of his career on back-to-back plays, contributing 15 yards on the last scoring drive.
• Kicker Matt Coghlin missed one field goal attempt late, but he connected on a career-long 51-yarder in the third quarter and showed off his booming leg on kickoff duty. And punter Bryce Baringer, an emergency walk-on two years ago who was left off the roster last season, averaged 54.0 yards on five punts, including a 78-yarder from his own 22-yard line to flip the field late in the first half.
“Everyone was confident in the game plan,” MSU coach Mel Tucker said. “We wanted to play complimentary football — offense, defense and special teams working together. We knew that we needed to make this a physical game, and we were prepared to do that for 60 minutes and four quarters. And that's what we did.”
The Spartans’ 37 wins over the Wolverines are second only to Ohio State’s 52 all-time against college football’s winningest program. And MSU’s 21 victories at Michigan Stadium is one behind the Buckeyes’ 22 since the venue opened in 1927. … U-M holds a 71-37-5 all-time advantage in the rivalry. However, since MSU joined the Big Ten in 1953, the Wolverines’ edge is only 38-28-2. … The win was MSU’s first over a ranked opponent since defeating No. 8 Penn State on Oct. 13, 2018, in State College, Pennsylvania. … Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh fell to 3-3 against the Spartans and 1-3 in Ann Arbor.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Michigan State football's Antjuan Simmons' finger changed it all