The late 1970s were a dry time for football in East Lansing. The program had not seen the national elite since Duffy Daugherty’s big years in 1965 and 1966. Daugherty’s successor, Denny Stolz had a couple seven-win seasons, but also left the program on NCAA probation that barred it from postseason play. The 1978 Michigan State football team inherited that probation and because of it, a special turnaround season gets short shrift in the history books.
Daryl Rogers had taken over as head coach following the sanctions and produced another seven-win campaign in 1977. Rogers oversaw an explosive offense. Ed Smith was the quarterback and a product of Central Catholic High in Pittsburgh, the same school that was in the process of turning out Dan Marino.
Eddie Smith might not have had the same kind of NFL career Marino did—or any NFL career at all for that matter—but he was awfully good at the college level. In 1978, Smith led the Big Ten in passing yardage with 2,226 yards. His 58% completion rate was high for this era. His 7.6 yards-per-attempt was solid and his 20-8 TD/INT ratio was excellent. By season’s end, he had become the Big Ten’s all-time career passing leader.
The quality of Smith’s receiving corps certainly helped. Tight end Mark Brammer was 1st-team All-Big Ten. So was wide receiver Eugene Byrd. And so was another receiver whose name you may have heard—Kirk Gibson. In future years Gibson would become a statewide hero when he hit the home run that sealed the 1984 World Series tor the Tigers. His ultimate legacy would be another World Series home run in 1988. In 1978, he was simply a really good college receiver that averaged nearly twenty yards per catch.
When Sparty ran the ball, they did so behind an offensive line anchored by all-conference tackle Jim Hinsley. Steve Smith was the lead rusher with 772 yards. Secondary responsibility in the running game was shared by Leroy McGee, Bruce Reeves and Lonnie Middleton.
It added up to an offense that scored over 37ppg and was second in the nation in scoring. The defense wasn’t quite that good, but at 27th nationally, they weren’t bad. The Spartans had an all-conference performer on the line, with Melvin Land, and in the secondary with Tom Graves.
Special teams was another area of strength. Ray Stachowicz was honored as the Big Ten’s best punter. And the kicker would go on some notoriety in the NFL—Morten Andersen made the NFL Hall of Fame.
Expectations weren’t high when the 1978 college football season opened, and Michigan State was unranked. The first month-plus of the season seemed to validate that.
Sparty opened at Purdue and jumped out to a 14-0 lead, including a short TD pass from Smith to Gibson. But the offense bogged down and the Boilermakers eventually won 21-14 on a touchdown with a little over three minutes remaining.
A win over a bad Syracuse team got Michigan State in the win column, but a Friday night road trip to powerful Southern Cal was next. The Trojans would win a share of the national championship and after spotting Sparty an early field goal, simply took over the line of scrimmage. Neither team played its best game, with four turnovers each, but USC’s running game was the difference in an easy 30-9 win.
Notre Dame, the defending national champion, came into East Lansing. Michigan State’s offense had success early on. But two nice drives ended with field goals, while two good Irish drives led by quarterback Joe Montana found the end zone. The Spartans were in a 15-6 hole and then Smith threw a Pick-6. The 29-25 final is deceptively close, as Smith threw a couple late TD passes after the issue was decided.
Michigan State had played a tough schedule. Notre Dame and USC were elite and Purdue would be in the Big Ten race all season long. There was still the possibility for the Spartans to turn the season around, but they had to start now. And “now” was a road trip to Ann Arbor.
There’s no better place for a Michigan State football fan to see their fortunes turn upward than the Big House at Michigan. What happened is that Smith threw for 248 yards a pair of touchdowns, while the defense intercepted Wolverine quarterback Rick Leach three times. The Spartans jumped out to a 17-0 lead and cruised home to a 24-15 win.
Michigan and Ohio State are always the teams to beat in the Big Ten, but that was even more pronounced in the late 1970s when the two schools had such separation on the rest of the league that it became known as “The Big Two” and “The Little Eight” (this was when the Big Ten actually had…wait for it…just 10 teams, and Penn State, having its own big run in 1978, was still 15 years from joining).
The events of October 14 indicated that this season might be different. Purdue had knocked off Ohio State in West Lafayette at the same time Sparty was taking the Wolverines to the woodshed. This conference race would have four teams and the Boilermakers were the ones setting the pace.
But the schedule decidedly favored Michigan State. They would not play Ohio State and had survived the tough portion. And the Smith-led passing game was about to unleash.
A home game with Indiana saw Gibson haul in an 86-yard touchdown pass within the first three minutes. Smith later added a 55-yard scoring pass. The Spartans won 49-14. Wisconsin came to town and after spotting the Badgers a safety, Smith threw four touchdowns, the defense scored twice and the final was 55-2.
The pollsters took notice and Michigan State cracked the rankings at #18. A road trip to Illinois saw Middleton rush for three scores and a 59-19 win. The blowouts continued at home against Minnesota. Smith and Byrd hooked up twice for touchdowns and the final was 33-9.
Michigan State then got the first break they needed. Purdue played Wisconsin to a surprise tie in Madison. The Boilermakers had Michigan up next, and now there was a realistic path for Sparty to share the league title.
Purdue indeed lost decisively to Michigan. In the meantime, the offensive fireworks kept going off the Spartans. Smith’s 180 passing yards at Northwestern gave him the single-season and career records in the Big Ten. The final score was 52-3.
Lowly Iowa was the last opponent. Michigan State was tied for first with Michigan and Ohio State, who were playing their traditional grudge match finale in Columbus. If not for the probation, Sparty would have controlled its destiny for the Rose Bowl—they would have won the head-to-head tiebreaker with Michigan and the “recency” tiebreaker with Ohio State (where the bid goes to the team that’s been away from Pasadena the longest).
Instead, the Big Two would get to settle the Rose Bowl bid, but Michigan State could still share in the championship and have the satisfaction of knowing they should have been the conference standard-bearer. That’s exactly what happened. Smith went out on a high note with three touchdown passes and the 42-7 win gave the program a piece of the title.
Michigan State has always had to fight for respect in the shadow of the Big Two. This year was no different. The sanctions for which they were hit were relatively minor and a multi-year postseason, television and scholarship ban were excessive.
And in either case, the coaching staff and players of the 1978 Michigan State football team were not the ones at fault for the violations. That’s why they deserve to be remembered as the rightful Big Ten champs. If nothing else, the basketball excellence in East Lansing that was starting up would get its rightful reward.