Rocky Lombardi gets shot at joining pantheon of Michigan State football QBs to beat U-M

Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·6 min read

Kirk Cousins never lost to Michigan in three games as Michigan State football’s starting quarterback from 2009-11.

Yet it was the two the current Minnesota Vikings quarterback didn’t play in — '07 and ’08 — that immediately came to mind this week when thinking about his immersion in the rivalry. He watched his mentor, Brian Hoyer, lose the first in heartbreaking fashion, then, a year later, become the first Spartan QB to win in Ann Arbor since 1990.

“People always talking about the ones I played in, but the ones I sat and watched on the sideline were just as intense,” Cousins said Wednesday on a video call. “I remember redshirting as a freshman in 2007, when we had a lead, and they came back and won at the end. And I remember how much that hurt. And then I remember the next one going into Ann Arbor and winning there, which was such a big deal to win in Ann Arbor and to win convincingly.”

[ MSU moves past Rutgers, steps into intensity of Michigan week ]

When it comes to MSU quarterbacks, their career legacy is defined as much —if not more — by beating U-M than any other successes.

Cousins. Hoyer. Connor Cook. Brian Lewerke. Bill Burke. Tony Banks. Jeff Smoker.

Each delivered electrifying performances against the Wolverines in the past 25 seasons to earn their spot in MSU history.

Rocky Lombardi hopes to join them this weekend.

MSU’s first-year starter hopes to end the Spartans’ two-game losing streak to No. 14 U-M on Saturday in Ann Arbor (noon/Fox). And those who did it before him feel Lombardi will be prepared to keep MSU in the fight.

“You feel the weight of leading your team to a victory in this game. And there's a lot of build up to it,” said Burke, who started and lost in 1998 but defeated Michigan in 1999 with a then-school record 400 yards passing. “It's not, to be honest with you, the exact same as every other game, although, as a player, I always tried to treat every game the same way. But it's just in reality not the same.

“There are guys who grew up in Michigan and go to the same high schools but end up at two different universities. Until you're leading your team out of the field and you know, that you're taking that first snap and you're gonna have a big hand and the outcome of the game, there's really nothing I don't think that can prepare you for starting this game until you actually run out there and do it for the first time.”

To do so, Lombardi — who has made appearances in the previous two meetings — understands he needs to be emotionally steady to make that possible. The fourth-year junior is coming off a career-best 319-yard, three-touchdown performance against Rutgers in which he completed 31 of 44 passes. And despite committing three of the Spartans’ seven turnovers —two interceptions and a fumble — Lombardi drew praise from coach Mel Tucker for his demeanorin keeping the offense moving.

[ Michigan-Michigan State football trivia: How much do you know about the series? ]

Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi looks to pass during the 38-27 loss to Rutgers on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, at Spartan Stadium.
Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi looks to pass during the 38-27 loss to Rutgers on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, at Spartan Stadium.

“I try to stay even keel, make sure everybody in the huddle feels a neutral presence in there and make sure that nobody's too high or nobody's too low,” Lombardi said earlier this week on a video call. “It's really important in every game, and especially in a rivalry game when emotions are flying high. Just one penalty or turnover, somebody is not focused, can really change the game.”

Since the Spartans joined the Big Ten in 1953, the Wolverines own a 38-27-2 record in the series. U-M dominates the all-time ledger, 71-36-5, and is 50-22-3 against MSU at Michigan Stadium.

Cousins, Hoyer, Cook and Lewerke helped the Spartans to an 8-2 stretch between 2008-17, including four in Ann Arbor.

After Hoyer ended MSU’s six-year losing streak in 2008, Cousins took Mark Dantonio’s program to a level unseen in the rivalry since the 1950s and ‘60s. When he beat U-M for the third time, in 2011, Cousins proclaimed he and his fellow seniors could “walk the streets of the state” with pride, having won four in a row.

Oct. 9, 2010: Michigan State 34, Michigan 17, Michigan Stadium: MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins celebrates a Spartans touchdown.
Oct. 9, 2010: Michigan State 34, Michigan 17, Michigan Stadium: MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins celebrates a Spartans touchdown.

“It was great to win those three and be a part of a stretch where we were able to really start to paint the state green,” Cousins said Wednesday. “It was a goal of ours, to kind of cause people to really get behind the Spartans. And I think we did a great job of that.”

Before Dantonio’s dominant stretch, Dan Enos led the 1990 win in Ann Arbor, then Jim Miller did it in 1993 in East Lansing.

Banks used future NFL receivers Derrick Mason and Muhsin Muhammad, plus Nigea Carter, to guide a late-game comeback in Nick Saban’s 1995 rivalry debut for a 28-25 victory. Saban remains the only MSU coach to win his first meeting with U-M.

[ Mel Tucker has support: Nick Saban, Kirk Cousins, Robaire Smith ]

“Our guys really played well in the game. We had two or three really, really good players, and they played really, really well in the game,” Saban recalled Wednesday via teleconference. “And I think it's a great indication of when you play in rivalry games, how the emotion of the game can really impact the outcome of the game.”

Burke lost his first game as a starter, in 1998, but led Saban’s second win in 1999 in perhaps the most hyped game week in series history. He whipped passes around all day to Plaxico Burress, whose 255 yards receiving, like Burke’s 400 passing, remain No. 2 in MSU history at their respective positions. The Spartans held on for a 34-31 victory.

Michigan State quarterback Bill Burke (16) prepares to thrown downfield during the second quarter against the University of Michigan at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., Saturday, Oct. 9, 1999. Burke passed for 400 yards and two touchdowns as the No. 11 Spartans held off third-ranked Michigan 34-31 in their showdown of Big Ten unbeatens.
Michigan State quarterback Bill Burke (16) prepares to thrown downfield during the second quarter against the University of Michigan at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., Saturday, Oct. 9, 1999. Burke passed for 400 yards and two touchdowns as the No. 11 Spartans held off third-ranked Michigan 34-31 in their showdown of Big Ten unbeatens.

“You realize how big the game is in the moment and when you're a player,” Burke said. “But as you get further and further away from your playing days, you certainly want to be able to look back and say that you won one of those games — at least one of those games — because you understand how important that rivalry is.”

For Lombardi, his fifth career start is only the second game of this season; he's working in a new offensive system with a new head coach after an offseason with no spring practice or traditional summer workouts. Everything MSU is trying to install was done from the end of September to last week’s opener against Rutgers.

The jitters showed with the turnovers, but the offense also proved it can be productive. But will it be enough to defy the 24½-point odds and win on the road at Michigan Stadium, etching Lombardi's name alongside those Spartans before him who went from underdogs to icons?

“It will be a little different to play on this early in the season. Week 2, but it doesn't feel like Week 2. The weather's changing, it's later in the year,” Lombardi said. “This is prime football season. So we're more than prepared.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Can Michigan State football's Rocky Lombardi join icons who beat U-M?