The Rose Bowl had been a long time coming for the good people of East Lansing. They hadn’t been to Pasadena since 1965 and hadn’t won there since 1955. In 1966 they were denied a trip because of a Big Ten rule preventing a team from going in consecutive years, even if they were conference champs. In 1978, NCAA probation cost them what would have otherwise been a Rose Bowl run. The 1987 Michigan State Spartans put all that to rest, winning an outright Big Ten crown, going to the Rose Bowl and winning it.
George Perles, the former defensive coordinator for the legendary “Steel Curtain” defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers, took over the Spartan program in 1983 after they’d endured four consecutive losing seasons. After a 4-6-1 campaign to start his tenure, Perles delivered three consecutive winning seasons leading into 1987.
The offense was run-heavy and built around an outstanding back in Lorenzo White. A true workhorse, he carried the ball 357 times and went over 1500 yards. He was first-team All-American, the only Michigan State player so honored. The line was anchored by offensive tackle Tony Mandarich, who eventually became the second player picked in the NFL draft in 1988.
White was ably backed up by Blake Ezor, who ran for over 600 yards himself in spot duty. Bobby McAllister was the quarterback and didn’t throw a lot—139 attempts for the entire season—but when he did he had a big-play target in future NFL wide receiver Andre Rison. Rison was the biggest reason McAllister was able to average a solid 8.4 yards-per-attempt.
But the bread-n-butter of any George Perles team would be defense. This one was no different and it started with a ballhawking secondary. Todd Krumm intercepted nine passes and John Miller picked off eight more. The defense ranked sixth in the country in points allowed.
Perles wasn’t backing away from tough non-conference competition. His team would open the season on Labor Day Night with a home game against #19 USC. That would be followed up with games against Notre Dame and Florida State. Sparty would find out quickly what it was made of.
Labor Day of 1987 was the first time football was played under the lights at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State opened with a 65-yard touchdown drive keyed by two big runs from White. On a third-and-four, he picked up 31 yards. And on third-and-three from the Trojan nine-yard line, the running back swept into the end zone.
Michigan State later fumbled a punt to set up a USC field goal. The teams then traded field goals and it was 10-6 at the half. The Spartans started the second half the same way they had the first—this TD drive went 84 yards. The two teams then began trading fumbles. Michigan State got the last one and McAllister hit Rison a 44-yard pass that put the Spartans on the doorstep. They got the touchdown and took a 24-6 lead.
White finished the game with 111 yards and Michigan State outrushed USC 238-61. The final was 27-13 and the Spartans appeared in the next week’s rankings, at #17.
The tough schedule quickly took its toll. This year’s Notre Dame team was a good one that would make a major bowl game and produce the Heisman Trophy winner in wide receiver Tim Brown. He might have locked it up on prime-time national TV against Michigan State on September 19. Brown returned two punts for touchdowns. Even before that, the game went awry on special teams. Ezor took the opening kickoff in his own end zone, came out, then went back in to kneel down. Safety, and it was 2-zip Notre Dame before a second came off the clock. The final was 31-8.
Florida State was having a breakout year under Bobby Bowden, a season that would begin their remarkable 15-year streak of reaching a major bowl game every season. They came to East Lansing and dismantled Michigan State 31-3.
Sparty was licking its wounds when Big Ten play began and the road didn’t get easier. Iowa was ranked #17 in the nation when Michigan State paid a visit on the first Saturday of October. The Spartans ground out a 19-14 win and got their season back on track.
That was followed by the game that means more to Michigan State than any other—they hosted 12th-ranked Michigan, the defending Big Ten champ and got a 17-11 win. That was followed up with a 38-0 blowout of Northwestern. Then, the Spartans got sloppy and played a bad Illinois team to a 14-14 tie.
A visit to Ohio State on October 31 was next. The Buckeyes had opened the season in the top five nationally. They weren’t playing up to those expectations, but were still ranked #15. And they opened this game with a 79-yard touchdown pass on the first play.
The Michigan State defense completely took over after that. Travis Davis recorded five sacks by himself. Ohio State only gained 68 yards the rest of the way—or eleven fewer than they’d gotten on the first play alone .The Spartans won 13-7 and with a Big Ten record of 4-0-1, were all alone atop the league.
A 45-3 blowout win over Purdue followed and it set up a November 14 home game with Indiana. The Hoosiers had also beaten Ohio State and Michigan and were a half-game back of Michigan State in the conference. Indiana was the only team in striking distance with two games to go, so Sparty could lock up the Rose Bowl bid in this mid-afternoon ABC game.
Lock it up is what they did—or at least they locked up the Indiana offense. They held the Hoosiers to three points. White ran wild, getting the ball 56 times for 292 yards. It was an easy 27-3 win and the party could start in East Lansing.
Michigan State closed the year at lowly Wisconsin with a 30-9 win. The Spartans were now ranked #8 and a familiar face would await them on New Year’s Day—USC had rebounded from that Labor Day beatdown, won the Pac-10 and would be the Rose Bowl opponent.
The Trojans scored first, on a 52-yard field goal and then White got settled in. He carried ten times on a drive that ended with his five-yard touchdown run. He scored again after a 55-yard pass from McAllister to Rison got Michigan State close.
With a 14-3 lead, the Spartans were in command. Percy Snow, a sophomore linebacker from Canton, was all over the field and he finished with seventeen unassisted tackles. The defense was also getting turnovers—by the time the game was over they would collect five. But they needed every one of them, because USC came back.
Trojan quarterback Rodney Peete threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to make it a 14-10 game. Peete led another drive, but it ended when USC botched the field goal attempt. They later missed another field goal attempt. Michigan State kicker John Langeloh was reliable and he hit a field goal early in the fourth quarter before Peete threw another touchdown pass. The game was tied 17-all going down the stretch.
McAllister made one of the plays I still consider among the most memorable in the forty-plus years I’ve been watching Rose Bowls. He rolled right under pressure and while jumping out of bounds threw it down the sideline where Rison was waiting. It was a 36-yard play and it set up a Spartan field goal with 4:14 left.
Peete had another drive left in him, but also another turnover. He fumbled and Krumm recovered. Michigan State killed most of the clock. Peete got one more desperation pass that ended up in another interception. Michigan State had won.
The 1987 season was the highlight of a good run for the Michigan State program under Perles. It marked the first of four straight bowl appearances. They got a piece of the Big Ten title again in the four-way tie of 1990. The downside? They wouldn’t make it back to Pasadena again until Mark Dantonio led the 2013 team to a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.