My three favorite rivalries in college football are Michigan’s rivalries with Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame.
What the MSU game may lack in broad historical importance or scope, however, is made up for in local and immediate importance and just an unrelenting desire to see bad things happen to the opposing program as often as possible.
When Mike Hart referred to Michigan State as Michigan’s little brother back in 2007 following a close Wolverine win, his words put rocket fuel into a rivalry that has never been that stable to begin with.
This past Saturday, however, was about as stable as this game has been for a while. Michigan State’s offense is lacking this season, and it stayed lacking all day long against the Wolverines. Michigan was the favorite and they played like it.
They pretty much controlled the entire game, even when they were tied. In the end, they came away with a 21-7 win in East Lansing, and even if it had been 10-7, it would have still felt like the Wolverines were never not in control.
After that 2007 loss to Michigan, Mark Dantonio famously said, “Pride comes before the fall.” He was right. Over the next 10 seasons, the Spartans would go on an 8-2 run over the Wolverines.
Perhaps the same could be said for Michigan State of late, but after seeing Michigan linebacker Devin Bush scuff up the MSU midfield before the game, I didn’t see much pride from the Spartans over the course of the four quarters that followed.
I just hope somebody warns Bush that the Ohio Stadium turf is not grass and that scuffing it with cleats won’t really do any damage, other than to maybe his Achilles tendon.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Michigan State came into this game allowing just 62.3 yards rushing per game. The Wolverines essentially tripled that number, finishing with 183 yards on the ground in 53 attempts (3.5 ypc). No, the yards per carry weren’t great, but when you run the ball 53 times and control the clock for 41:03, you are getting everything you need.
In fact, you have to tip your cap at the amount of brute force it takes to sustain possession of the ball like the Wolverines did.
Karan Higdon carried the ball 33 times for 144 yards (4.4 ypc) and ran as tough as fullback Ben Mason. Chris Evans only carried it three times, with his last carry ending in a fumble in the third quarter.
Evans fumbled at the Michigan 9-yard line. Michigan State recovered and scored their only touchdown of the game just two plays later. The score tied the game.
It was probably at that moment that Jim Harbaugh decided that as long as Chris Evans didn’t get another carry in this game, there was no way they could lose.
The weather was a factor — the game featured off and on rain and a weather delay of over an hour in the first quarter. The conditions led to a Michigan fumble just outside of the red zone when Higdon slipped before he and Shea Patterson were meshing on a read play. The timing was screwed up and the ball found the ground. The Spartans recovered and prolonged the inevitable for a little while longer.
Patterson completed 14-of-25 passes for 212 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He won the game when he hit Donovan Peoples-Jones streaking down the sideline for a 79-yard touchdown near the end of the third quarter.
I didn’t look for a clip of the play, but here’s a reasonable facsimile of what happened.
Patterson threw a couple of passes that could have been trouble for Michigan, but luck favors the prepared Wolverine. He also added six rushes for 36 yards.
The best news of the day for Michigan — aside from the win — was the return of sophomore receiver Tarik Black. He only played a bit and he didn’t catch a pass, but it is great to have him back. Michigan’s bye week is this Saturday, so he’ll have time to get even healthier before they take the field against Penn State in two weeks.
Michigan State has a very active defensive line, but the Michigan offensive line held up as best as they could. Patterson was sacked twice and there were times when Higdon had to make a man miss immediately. That is going to happen against talented defensive lines, however, and the Michigan offensive line never blinked. They never looked overmatched or overwhelmed, and they never looked like they didn’t have the answers to the questions the Spartans were asking.
When Michigan Was On Defense
The Michigan State offense is right up there with the Wisconsin offense in terms of their placement in the Wolverine defense’s wheelhouse.
If the Spartans were ever going to win this game, they were going to need more-than-adequate quarterback play out of starter Brian Lewerke. They were also going to need his legs almost as much as his arm.
They got neither, however, as Lewerke completed just 5-of-25 passes for 66 yards. He also only gained three yards on two rushing attempts. As a mobile guy, he needed to be much more involved in the MSU box score.
Linebacker Josh Uche added two more sacks from his situational rush end position. Since Rashan Gary’s departure, Uche has seemingly become the Chase Winovich of the defense, while Winovich has transitioned to the much more statistically unproductive Rashan Gary role. Winovich has just 0.5 tackles for loss in the last three games. Uche has six.
(Both players are going to be a nightmare for Ohio State’s offensive tackles.)
The Spartans’ only score of the game came on a trick play that capped a 7-yard touchdown drive.
Not counting the kneel down at the end of the half, Michigan State’s offense had 14 possessions. Just four times did any of those possessions reach double-digit yardage. Their longest drive of the day — all five plays and 48 yards of it — came at the end of the game when the Wolverines were already busy figuring out their pending celebrations.
Michigan’s leading tackler was safety Tyree Kinnel, who finished with just five tackles. Contrast that with the Spartans, who had eight defenders with more than five tackles. The Wolverine defense just didn’t see the field for long stretches of time like MSU’s did.
I hope the Michigan offense paid the Spartan defense time-and-a-half for working them so hard on a weekend.
Michigan held MSU to 15 yards rushing and 79 yards passing. They had just 51 plays on offense. It wasn’t easy to watch. The play-by-play could have been done by Sarah McLachlan.
“Look at these faces. For as little as 49 cents a day you can help give a Spartan hope.”
If this is how Michigan treats its little brother, then this is one messed up family.
The Michigan Special Teams
Michigan and Michigan State combined for 19 punts, and none of them led to a significant return.
Wolverine punter Will Hart punted eight times, putting three inside the 20. Three of his punts went for touchbacks. Three times he had an opportunity to pin the Spartans deep and three times he failed to do so.
Moving forward — like against Penn State and Ohio State — those punts need to stay in play. Every inch matters and each punt could be the difference between winning and losing.
As we know, games come down to one single yard quite often. Thanks to the tools and technology we have in football today to precisely measure yardage gained, however, controversial decisions were removed from the sport many years ago.
Kicker Quinn Nordin missed a 36-yarder, and didn’t look good doing it. He has missed three of his last six kicks.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Michigan and Ohio State are on a collision course, but only one of those two teams is currently in motion.
The Wolverines are rolling right now while the Buckeyes are reeling. That’s not good math for OSU and something needs to change in the next month if they are going to upset Michigan down the road.
It also means the Wolverines are feeling better about themselves than at any other point in the season, which they should. They have embarrassed Wisconsin and Michigan State in back-to-back weeks and haven’t had to stress themselves much to get it done.
Michigan is now appearing in college football playoff projections. They have become the team to beat in the Big Ten.
After starting the season on some ridiculous pundits’ hot seat, Jim Harbaugh is now on his way to winning the 2018 Big Ten Coach of the Year Award.
Everything is shining brightly for Wolverine football right now.
A petty writer would make a call back to Mark Dantonio’s words from 2007 here, but I am above such things.
Michigan now gets the week off to bask in their own resplendent glow.
The bye week almost comes at a bad time for a program that has as much momentum as Michigan does right now.
That being said, I do not expect a rusty team in two weeks. I expect to see the same running game that is only getting better and the same quarterback who is good enough to make things happen against anybody.
The expectations for the defense remain the same as well. Don Brown will still have his unit attacking offenses like the wood-chipper tank with battle ax arms it is.
Every good thing being said about Michigan football right now is accurate and deserved.
And now they just have to make sure they can handle it.