Through the Years: The Paul Bunyan Trophy

Written by Doug Hills


In 1949 Michigan voters elected Gerhard Mennen Williams as the state’s 41st governor.  Williams would serve a then record six two-year terms before choosing not to seek re-election in 1960.  During his 12 years in office, Williams improved the state’s educational programs, school facilities and teachers’ salaries.  But his two most notable accomplishments were the construction of Mackinac Bridge, connecting the Upper Peninsula with the southern half of the state and the creation of the Paul Bunyan – Governor of Michigan Trophy.

Donated by Governor Williams in 1953 to honor Michigan State’s entry into the Big Ten, the trophy has been awarded to the winner of the Michigan versus Michigan State game each season.  This weekend the trophy will be awarded for the 60th time in the rivalry series.

Depicting the legendary Paul Bunyan, standing astride an axe with full beard and plaid flannel shirt, the trophy stands at four feet high with feet planted on a map of the state and school flags on each side laying claim to their half.  As if a four foot wooden lumberjack wasn’t large enough for a trophy, the figure is mounted on top of a five foot wooden stand, making it one of the largest trophies in all sports.

When Williams introduced the prized trophy in East Lansing, the Spartans made sure it stayed there beating Michigan 14-6.  The next year, the trophy traveled just over an hour to the southeast to Michigan Stadium where the Wolverines claimed the giant lumberjack for the first time by winning 33-7.

Michigan currently leads the trophy series 34-23-2 but has failed to return the trophy to Schembechler Hall over the last four seasons, since losing it in 2008.

Often in this series, more is on the line than just possession of a four foot wooden lumberjack.  This game has often had Big Ten title implications and now will impact the race in the Legends Division every season.  Maybe most important is the factor it will have on in-state bragging rights and possibly recruiting each year.

In 2012, one hundred players from the state of Michigan will suit up, 45 of them in Maize and Blue and 55 in Green and White. As Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio stated in his Monday press conference, “you are green or blue in this state by the time you get to age 14, maybe 10.  Some may argue earlier.”

Like many in-state rivalry games, when the Spartans and Wolverines meet, one thing is certain – the two teams will hit each other. As described by Michigan head coach Brady Hoke, the rivalry has always “been a very physical, feisty to some degree, football game”. 

Both teams will come ready, attempting in Hoke’s words, “to be the tougher opponent”. They both know that this game will be determined by the most physical team at the line of scrimmage, the team that plays the toughest defense and most importantly, the team that can run the ball.

In 39 of the past 42 games in the series, the team with the most rushing yards has won the game and been awarded with the Paul Bunyan Trophy.  During the last four meetings, Michigan State has outgained Michigan on the ground 826 to 356 yards, with the Spartans going 4-0 against their in-state rival.

Michigan State looks to the 60th meeting in the trophy series to claim a record high five consecutive wins over Michigan, while the Wolverines look to introduce the legendary lumberjack to their players for the first time in their careers.

But before Denard Robinson and Le’Veon Bell make a run at the trophy – we take a look back at some of the great rushing performances in the Paul Bunyan - Governor of Michigan Trophy series between the Wolverines and Spartans of the past….

In his first year as the Wolverines’ head coach, Bo Schembechler led Michigan to a share of the1969 Big Ten title and a historic upset of top ranked Ohio State.  But that same season, Michigan surrendered the Paul Bunyan trophy in a 23-12 loss to the Spartans.  The Spartans were led that day by Bill Triplett who carried the ball 18 times for 142 yards.

Michigan accumulated 327 yards by halftime of the 1975 game with the Spartans, but Michigan State stayed close on the scoreboard.  The Wolverines would win 16-6 due to the combined effort of Rob Lytle (20 carries for 158 yards) and Gordon Bell (19 carries for 105 yards).

The following year, Rob Lytle would partner with a different Wolverine to again lead the Michigan ground game.  Lytle accounted for 180 yards on just 10 carries while Harlan Huckleby scored three touchdowns on 126 yards rushing. Michigan won the 1976 meeting 42-10 after gaining 442 total rushing yards against the Spartan defenders.

The Wolverines would win again 38-20 in 1981 with running back Butch Woolfolk carrying the load on 39 carries for 253 yards on his way to becoming a first round NFL draft pick.  The October 10th game would be Woolfolk’s greatest performance in the Maize and Blue.

The 1987 game saw a Spartan running back in the role of workhorse, with Lorenzo White rushing 34 times for 185 yards in a 17-11 win for Michigan State.  The loss would be just the fourth and final time that Bo Schembechler would lose the Paul Bunyan trophy.

With just 15 carries in the 1994 meeting in Ann Arbor, Tshimanga Biakabutuka gained 141 yards, while his teammate Tyrone Wheatley added 148 yards on 20 carries.  Michigan defeated Michigan State 40-20 in Gary Moeller’s last game as the Wolverine head coach against the Spartans.

A year later, Biakabutuka would run for another 191 yards against Michigan State in East Lansing, but Michigan fell to the Spartans under first year coach Nick Saban 28-25.

The A-train, Anthony Thomas, helped Michigan secure the Paul Bunyan trophy in 2000, rushing for 175 yards behind future NFL linemen Steve Hutchinson and Jeff Backus.  The Wolverines would win the game 14-0 on their way to a share of the Big Ten title.

A year later, Michigan State exacted their revenge on the Wolverines with running back T.J. Duckett rushing for 211 yards.  After pounding the Michigan defense on the ground the entire game, Duckett caught the game winning touchdown from Jeff Smoker giving his team the 26-24 win in the final second-plus.

The 2003 meeting witnessed a record setting performance by Michigan running back Chris Perry.  Perry set an all-time Michigan record for carries in a game with 51 touches for 219 yards and a touchdown.  The Wolverines won the contest 27-20, moving them ahead of Michigan State in the polls, and helping to secure the first to two straight Big Ten Championships.

The following season’s game would be arguably the most exciting matchup in the history of the series.  Due to DeAndra Cobb’s 205 yards on 22 carries, the Spartans led 27-10 with 8:43 remaining in the fourth quarter, but the Wolverines would battle back at home to send the game into three overtimes. 

Receiver Braylon Edwards stole the show late in the game with three touchdowns, but freshman running back Mike Hart’s 224 yards on the ground were just as important to the Wolverines’ effort a 45-37 win.  Hart’s performance was one of three games in which he gained over 200 yards rushing.

The following season, Michigan and Michigan State would go to overtime again.  Mike Hart had missed the previous two games due to injury, but returned to face the in-state rival.  Despite not being completely healthy, the diminutive runner rushed for 218 yards in the Wolverines 34-31 victory.

The tide turned in 2008 though as Michigan State won the first of what would be four consecutive games in the Paul Bunyan series.  Led by Javon Ringer’s 194 yards on 37 carries, the Spartans defeated Michigan in Rich Rodriguez’s first season as the Wolverines head coach.  Ringer scored twice, including a 64 yard run shortly before the half.  The loss to the Spartans would guarantee Michigan its first non-winning season since 1984.

Over the last two seasons, Michigan State running back Edwin Baker has delivered back-to-back impact performances with a combined 314 rushing yards against Michigan.  In 2010, Baker carried the ball 22 times for 147 yards and one touchdown.  Last year, he gained 167 yards on 26 carries and his second career touchdown in the series.

The 2012 meeting will feature two returning 1,000 yard rushers for Michigan in Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint, while the Spartans will look to Le’Veon Bell, who is just 84 yards short of his first 1,000 yard season after gaining 948 yards last season.

If history does in fact repeat itself, expect another big running game from one of these three as they attempt to win the Paul Bunyan Trophy.




 
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