How do you even describe this game? Michigan was about as dominant as you could imagine in the first half, yet went into the locker room clinging to a one-score lead. The Wolverine defense held the Spartans to under 50 total yards of offense, surrendered just four first downs and spent the majority of the half in Spartan territory. If it was a hockey game, you’d say the ice was tilted in the Wolverines’ favor. Yet despite this dominance, despite a 170-49 advantage in total yards and a nearly 2:1 advantage in time of possession, the Wolverines had just a 7-0 lead to show for their trouble.
And then, in one drive, in one play really, the lead was gone. Given the shortest of fields after Michigan fumbled inside its ten-yard-line, Michigan State parlayed a double-reverse, halfback pass to quarterback Brian Lewerke into a game-tying touchdown. Suddenly, Spartan Stadium was as loud as it had been all day and all the momentum was squarely with the home team.
Suddenly, the Spartan defensive line, which had been held at bay most of the day, was collapsing the pocket, making like difficult for quarterback Shea Patterson, and clogging up running lanes for tailback Karan Higdon. Was this game going to follow a script all-too-familiar to Michigan fans? Was everything about to go south for the Wolverines? You’d certainly be forgiven for thinking so, particularly after Michigan responded to Michigan State’s game-tying touchdown by sputtering through three forgettable drives.
Then, just when it seemed like the only way Michigan would score again was if it was courtesy of its defense, lightning struck. Patterson found a streaking Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 79-yard touchdown strike, putting the Wolverines back on top, 14-7. After the game, Patterson described what he saw on the play, “Donovan in one-on-one coverage? Good luck with that.” Good luck, indeed. Peoples-Jones got loose, Patterson delivered a picture-perfect pass and the Wolverines re-gained the lead. And then, as if buoyed by the quick strike, after forcing the Spartans into a quick three-and out, Patterson and the Wolverines embarked on a 13-play, 84-yard touchdown drive, effectively putting the game on ice. Handed a 21-7 lead, Michigan’s defense did the rest.
How dominant was Michigan’s defense on the day? Which stat do you prefer? Michigan held the Spartans to under 100 yards of total offense, a mere 15 yards on the ground and 79 in the air. That’s not on one drive, but for the entire game. Michigan also held the Spartans to an imperfect 0-for-12 on third down conversions, and for the second week in a row, made a good quarterback look bad. Lewerke finished a miserable 5 of 25 for 66 yards, but it’s unfair to pin all the blame on Lewerke. The Spartan quarterback was constantly under pressure and his receivers rarely found their way open. The Michigan defense, outstanding all season, seemed even more energized against its intra-state rival.
After the game, much of the talk centered on pre-game shenanigans, which were either bush league or BS, depending on which sideline you were standing. But regardless of what happened prior to kickoff, one thing was clear, this game was important to Michigan. Rarely have Michigan’s players, or coaches for that matter, reacted to a victory with such emotion. It was evident when Michigan celebrated with the Paul Bunyan trophy on the field and carried over into the locker room - and even into the post-game press conference.
Prior to the Saturday’s game, Michigan players played coy, saying Michigan State was just another conference game against another good team, but in the game’s aftermath, the Wolverines didn’t mince words - or hide their feelings. Head coach Jim Harbaugh told the press that this game has been circled on the calendar for some time, and Michigan players, almost to a man, emphasized the importance of this game, of this victory.
With the victory, Michigan not only exorcised another one of its demons (or successfully completed another stop on its revenge tour, as it’s been called by some), but also, and more importantly, showed continued to growth as football team. Michigan, and its offensive line in particular, silenced some of its critics with a 320-yard rushing day against Wisconsin the previous week, but the Spartans, who came into Saturday’s game with the nation’s top-ranked rush defense, promised to provide an even greater challenge. Michigan proved that it was up to the challenge, rushing for 183 yards on 53 carries and controlling the action for much of the day.
The victory also puts the Wolverines alone atop the Big Ten, with a 5-0 conference record. Michigan’s biggest tests are yet to come, with Penn State and Ohio State looming, but two-thirds of the way through the season, and not only are all of Michigan’s goals still attainable and in front of them, but it’s looking more and more like the Wolverines have the wherewithal to attain those goals.