Even though the Detroit Lions were nowhere near this year’s conference championship weekend, football fans from across the state of Michigan still had plenty of reason to get fired up and feel proud during Sunday night’s games.
That’s because both Michigan and Michigan State had several football alumni playing key roles towards helping send the Patriots and the Giants into the Super Bowl. As every possession reached a critical juncture late in both games, it seemed there was always a player who once wore the Green and White or Maize and Blue contributing a touchdown, critical catch or important play to spark their side.
Sunday’s exhibition put on by the state of Michigan was enough to make Lloyd Carr, Mark Dantonio, Brady Hoke and likely even John L. Smith and Rich Rodriguez smile. Here’s an in-depth look at the vital plays each player contributed on Sunday to help push their team into Super Sunday.
Tom Brady, QB, Michigan (2000): Naturally, the Patriots’ quarterback will generate the most fanfare in the group, due to the fact that he distributes the ball most of the day and has already won three Super Bowl titles. Despite the fact that Brady’s numbers were not fantastic by his standards (22-36, no touchdowns and two interceptions, which led Brady to claim after the game that he “sucked”) his goal line touchdown plunge in the fourth quarter put the Patriots ahead for good. Despite getting crunched mightily by Ray Lewis on the play (a frightening proposition for even the most courageous souls) Brady held on to the ball for the go ahead score, and spiked the ball furiously into the turf, giving his Patriots the final touchdown they would need to defeat the Baltimore Ravens.
Zoltan Mesko, P, Michigan (2009): Though his position is a bit unceremonious on the team, the former Michigan punter has managed to carve out a nice career for himself in the NFL with the Patriots. On Sunday, Mesko was only called upon twice, but did boom a 53 yard punt and secure one touchback to help the Patriots play the field position game. In the Super Bowl, the kicking game is extra critical, and having a punter with a leg like Mesko’s will only help the Patriots’ chances.
Brian Hoyer, QB, Michigan State (2008): Hoyer acts as Brady’s backup, so naturally that means he doesn’t see much time during a season, especially during the AFC Championship game. His numbers reflect this, as Hoyer only was allowed to complete one pass on the year for 22 yards. Still, like it is often said the Vice President is one heartbeat away from Presidency, Hoyer is one freak play away from suddenly becoming the leader of the Patriots’ high flying offense, even in the playoffs. Combine that with the fact that Bill Belichick has trusted him enough to stay behind Brady, and that makes Hoyer quietly one of the most important Patriots.
Devin Thomas, WR, Michigan State: Out of all the players listed, Thomas perhaps had the nicest day, recovering two critical fumbles on special teams to set up scoring drives for the Giants. Nothing was bigger than his fumble recovery off a punt in overtime, which essentially ended the game for the 49ers by gift wrapping a close game winning field goal attempt. Thomas has bounced around the league since leaving Michigan State early and getting drafted in the second round by the Washington Redskins, but seems to have found a home playing gunner on kickoff coverage for the Giants. When coaches say “the little things” often times are the difference between winning and losing, both hustle plays Thomas made can be viewed as the definition of that statement. Tom Coughlin would agree, as he’s not waking up an NFC champion without Thomas’s heads up hustle Sunday night.
Mario Manningham, WR, Michigan: If you’re only going to catch one pass and the target comes in the red zone, you best make the most of that opportunity. Mario Manningham certainly did, hauling in a critical 17 yard touchdown to give the Giants the lead in the fourth quarter. The catch was tough, and Manningham had to leap in between two defenders blanketing him to secure the ball in the end zone. San Fransico would drive down the field late and tie the score, but Manningham’s touchdown was still a critical play in the game to give the Giants some positive momentum after trailing most of the second half. Manningham has been a large part of the Giants’ offense all season, and figures to see a large role in the Super Bowl against a Patriots’ pass defense which has been suspect much of the year.
Greg Jones, LB, Michigan State (2010): Jones, a rookie, has had to pay his dues this year, and has spent plenty of time on special teams. Much like when he was a Spartan, the linebacker has delivered solid play no matter where he has been lined up on the field by the Giants. On Sunday night, he made several critical tackles on punt coverage and was all over San Fransico’s Kyle Williams whenever he returned the ball. Jones also contributed three tackles in the game. Much like his old teammate Thomas, he did all the little things well, which helped the Giants advance.
David Baas, G/C, Michigan (2005): The most important position on the offensive line is center, and David Baas had an extra tough job for the Giants on Sunday. In the driving rain and tough field conditions, Baas not only had to call out the defensive alignment for his linemates, but had make sure Eli Manning recieved all of his snaps safely without fumble. He had to do this despite feeling the effects of a lingering stomach bug during the week. Baas was able to play well, and though the Giants offensive line struggled a bit with protection, the team was able to move the ball down the field when they had to score points while avoiding bad snaps in the process.
So, no matter who triumphs at Lucas Oil Field in two weeks time, Michigan and Michigan State’s football programs will each be guaranteed another Super Bowl champion, one way or another. On Sunday afternoon, both school’s thumbprints were all over the outcome of both championship games, giving fans and alumni plenty of additional reason to feel pride.
For a couple programs which have faced their share of rebuilding issues lately, Sunday night proved once more that no matter what side you pull for, college football is still king in the state of Michigan.