1990 Michigan State football entered the season on a good run for the program under George Perles. The Spartans won the Rose Bowl in 1987. They had good seasons in the two ensuing years and had made five bowls in the past seven seasons. A 1990 season that was crazy across the country, and especially in the Big Ten, served to add to Sparty’s resume. Michigan State was one of four teams that shared the Big Ten title.
Perles’ teams were built on running the football and playing defense. Tico Duckett won the Big Ten rushing title with 1,394 yards and averaged 5.4 yards-per-carry. Hyland Hickson rushed for nearly 1,200 yards, also averaging better than five a pop.
Eric Moten, an All-Conference guard, anchored the offensive line. And tight end Duane Young made All-Big Ten on the strength of his blocking. On the defensive side of the ball, lineman Carlos Jenkins was the best player on a good unit. Placekicker John Langeloh was the best in the Big Ten, a particularly valuable asset for a team playing a style that lent itself to close games.
But even though Michigan State didn’t rely on quarterback play in these years, they still had a pretty good one in 1990 with Dan Enos. Enos’ 62 percent completion rate was excellent by the standards of the era and his 7.6 yards-per-attempt was tops in the Big Ten. Courtney Hawkins and James Bradley were steady, if unspectacular targets. If there was a problem it was mistakes—Enos’ 11 interceptions was too high for a quarterback in this style of offense.
The Spartans opened the season ranked #23 and were up to #19 by the time they opened the season on September 15. A road trip to a pretty good Syracuse team resulted in a 23-23 tie. Then Notre Dame came to East Lansing. The Irish were at the peak of their power in the Lou Holtz era and ranked #1 in the country.
Michigan State led 19-7 in the fourth quarter. But Notre Dame rallied. On the winning drive, Spartan safety Todd Murray had a potential interception bounce off his chest and into the arms of an Irish receiver on the one-yard line. Michigan State lost 20-19.
The quality of the performance against Notre Dame actually nudged Sparty up to #22 in the polls. They closed non-conference play with a 34-10 win over Rutgers, then a bad independent team.
Big Ten play opened up at home against Iowa. The Michigan State defense played well, but an Enos interception gave the Hawkeyes a gift TD and the Spartans trailed 12-7 in the fourth quarter. A late drive ended with a failed fourth-down conversion and Michigan State lost. They were on the ropes early in league play with a road trip to Ann Arbor up next.
Michigan was the two-time defending conference champion. But Sparty was ready. They ran for 222 yards on the afternoon. Hickson scored two touchdowns. Enos was an efficient 13/21 for 143 yards. By rights, Michigan State should have won this one going away.
But there was a big special teams lapse when they allowed Desmond Howard to take a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. And, in shades of the Notre Dame game, the defense allowed a last-ditch drive. A Michigan touchdown with :06 left cut the lead to 28-27. In this era prior to overtime, that meant the Wolverines had to decide whether to kick the extra point and take a tie, or let it all ride on a two-point conversion.
Michigan played for the win. Howard ran an inside slant. The pass fell incomplete. The Wolverines screamed that Howard had been tripped as he made his cut. The Spartans felt the contact was incidental. The officials agreed with Sparty. Michigan State had a big 28-27 upset.
A difficult early conference schedule continued with a road trip to contending Illinois, and ended with a 15-13 loss. Michigan State responded with rare offensive outbursts over the next two games. They unloaded in a shootout against lowly Purdue, winning 55-33. Then Enos led the way past bowl-bound Indiana, winning 45-20.
There were three games left and Iowa was on top of the Big Ten with a 5-0 conference record. The Hawkeyes had just thumped Illinois, who were 4-1. Ohio State was right behind at 3-1-1, with Michigan State and Michigan each pulling in at 3-2. The Spartans were having a nice season to be sure, but the odds of pulling out a conference title of any kind seemed remote.
Michigan State took care of business in beating a respectable Minnesota team 28-16 on the road. Iowa lost to Ohio State. Illinois also lost and the standings tightened. The Spartans went to lowly Northwestern and didn’t play well, but got out of Evanston with a 29-22 win. Everyone else held serve.
Iowa did have the tiebreakers in control, so the Rose Bowl bid was down to the Hawkeyes and Ohio State, who were still a half-game back. But what if both teams lost? While that would still send Iowa to Pasadena, all of the teams with two conference losses—Sparty, Michigan and Illinois—could get a piece of the league hardware.
Michigan State hosted Wisconsin. The Badgers were an awful team, in the first year of the rebuild under Barry Alvarez. Again, the Spartans did not play well but again, they won. And the good news rolled in. Ohio State lost to Michigan. Iowa lost to Minnesota. Illinois also won, and that meant a four-way tie. The Spartans, Hawkeyes, Illini and Wolverines had a chaotic quad-championship.
A Sun Bowl bid was Michigan State’s reward. They were ranked #22 and took on #21 USC, a rematch of that Rose Bowl game following the 1987 season. This one might not have had the same stakes, but it was a heckuva good football game down in El Paso.
It didn’t start well for Michigan State, as some of the doldrums from the last two shaky wins carried over. USC took a 7-0 lead and then drove to the Spartan 1-yard line. But a fumble was recovered in the end zone by Michigan State, and they promptly drove 80 yards for a touchdown. The game went to halftime tied 7-7.
Trailing 10-7 in the third quarter, Enos threw a touchdown pass to Hawkins. An interception set up a quick field goal and the Spartans led 17-10. USC made a couple good drives, but settled for field goals both times. Holding on to a 17-16 lead, Michigan State got the ball with just over three minutes to play. It was time for that great running game to take over and that’s exactly what happened. A pair of first downs on the ground salted away the win.
The final polls had Michigan State ranked #16. It was another good year in the Perles run. The unfortunate thing is that this was the last real high point. The Spartans had losing seasons three of the next four years. Perles was shown the door and a young head coach named Nick Saban was hired. It’s fair to say that hire worked out pretty well. And the 1990 Michigan State football season is still one of Perles’ nice achievements.