A RALLY FOR THE AGES

EAST LANSING -The pass was a cannon shot, a third-down wing and a prayer, it traveled at least 40 yards in the air, went high into the lights and came low out of the glare, it spiraled to a backpedaling Mario Manningham in the end zone who leapt up to meet it, hands held high. He caught the ball and, as the defender fell in front of him, gravity took Manningham down until he landed smack on the chests of every Michigan State fan around the country who thought, finally, this was the one they would win.

“Blue again?” you could hear them gasp, after this 28-24 late rally victory by Michigan.

Blue again.

It was the 100th meeting of these teams, and right until the end, it sure looked like the second century of the rivalry would start on a high green note. “I thought we had this football game,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio would lament.

And why not? MSU had overcome its first-half doldrums, it was pushing 15th-ranked Michigan all over the field, running down its throat, doing all the things that old U-M teams used to do in the days of three yards and a cloud of dust. The Spartans had a 10-point lead halfway through the fourth quarter.

A 10-point lead?

And Michigan was missing its best player, Mike Hart.

But Chad Henne was still out there. And where there’s Henne, there’s hope. U-M coach Lloyd Carr simply gushes about the senior -“there isn’t anybody tougher,” he would tell the media – and this, remember, is a quarterback, not a linebacker, a defensive end or an offensive tackle. Henne, who, along with Hart, seems to bruise, pull or ding some body part on almost every play, led his team on an amazing drive – or hyper-drive – going 79 yards in less than a minute, culminating in a 14-yard touchdown pass to Greg Mathews that was so perfectly timed, the Swiss were applauding.

And then, after the U-M defense stiffened and forced a punt, Henne led yet another drive in the closing minutes, nine plays, 65 yards, capped by that crushing 31-yard touchdown to Manningham on third-and-12, a pass and catch that will haunt the football dreams of the current Spartans, former Spartans and Spartans to come.

Blue again. A tale of two halves

“How long will we continue to bow to the University of Michigan?” Dantonio had implored his players this past week. Like a gladiator raising his sword to the crowd, the message was clear. A new regime was in charge. And it was sick of the losing. Sick of the five straight defeats. Sick of dropping 30 of the previous 40 matchups. Let’s face it. When you lose 30 of the last 40, they can call it a rivalry, but it’s more of a chip game, the chip sitting on Michigan’s shoulder, daring Michigan State to knock it off.

The Spartans nearly did. Yes, it took a while for them to wake up. The first half was a numbing collection of missed opportunities, overthrown passes and punts, punts, punts – only two third downs were converted by both teams combined- and if not for a couple of running explosions from Hart (each of which led to Michigan touchdowns) there might have been no excitement at all.

But in games like these, the first halves often feel as if they were played in a different century. MSU, trailing, 14-3, obviously learned something during halftime, because it came out running in the third quarter behind the “thunder and lightning” of Javon Ringer and Jehuu Caulcrick. They marched downfield, 13 rushes in 15 plays, and wound up in the end zone.

From that point on, you could see froth on the fangs of the MSU team, rabidly hungry for this victory. The tackling grew harsh. The blocking was intense. And the big explosion this sold-out Spartans crowd was hoping for came on the last play of the third quarter, when Ringer took the handoff, headed left, and was all but down in the grasp of a Michigan defender, flapped like a blanket yanked off a clothesline.

But Ringer did not go down. He spun away, stayed on his feet and left 10 of the 11 Michigan players behind him, reversing his field, heading backward then sideways, one of those plays where coaches scream, “No, don’t … NO, DON’T! … WAIT, OK … YES, YES, YES!” Ringer came all the way across the field, then scooted down the sidelines, 72 yards.

The Spartans scored on the next play.

And MSU had its first lead of the day.

“I really thought we had it,” Ringer would say after the game. Especially when MSU added another touchdown a few minutes later, pulling ahead, 24-14. The crowd was crazed. The Wolverines looked dazed.

“You get down 10 points in this stadium,” Carr said of that point in the game, “you’re up against it.” A tale of two teams

Which only makes what Michigan did, really, all that more impressive. I know MSU fans don’t want to hear any compliments to their opponents, but you have to hand it to the Wolverines. They are, let’s face it, two different teams – the one with Hart and the one without.

And while Hart started the day strong, he kept hobbling off the field, favoring his injured ankle. You never knew if he would come back. On. Off. In. Out. It was like going to a Sly and the Family Stone concert in the ’60s. The star’s attendance was optional.

But Hart still surpassed 100 yards, in limited action, and his last play of the day, ironically, was his biggest. It came in the fourth quarter, with Michigan on its 33. Henne suffered another temporary injury and had to hobble off, bringing on backup Ryan Mallett, the lanky, talented but awfully green freshman, who had to have his cap yanked off by a coach before he raced onto the field.

Michigan fans now shiver when Mallett comes in; it’s like watching Bambi run across traffic, and Mallett, without a warm-up, took the snap and got hammered, immediately fumbling the ball. That could have been the kill shot for the Spartans. It could have been the end of it all.

Instead, Hart somehow scooped the fumble off the ground and ran with it. That’s right. He ran with it – for 19 yards and a first down!

Off a fumble?

Hart left the game, never to return. But I think I heard a few players whisper, “Who was that hobbling man?”

Henne and company took it the rest of the way, the U-M defense squashed any comeback hopes, and, once again, Michigan left this game happier than its rivals. Henne had four TD passes. Manningham had eight catches and two scores. The Wolverines shortest road trip of the season could again be the most joyous. Even the hobbled Hart was ecstatic.

“I was just laughing,” Hart would later say about the crazed crowd when MSU was leading. “I thought it was funny. They got excited. It’s good. Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you’re playing basketball and let him get the lead, then you just come back and take it back.”

You mean MSU is U-M’s little brother?

“Yep. That’s what they think, so it’s what I think.”

Well, I guess you can talk that way when you’re a senior and you’ve never lost to your intrastate rival. If the Spartans want to make Hart eat his words, they’ll have to do it against someone else wearing his number. He’s done with them.

And so, for this year, are the Wolverines, who keep their Big Ten title hopes alive, and further distance themselves from the awful 0-2 start that many thought would doom the season. Michigan has won eight in a row since then, and has two games left in what could be its most remarkable turnaround ever.

MSU, meanwhile, is off to the same start in this series under Dantonio as its finish under previous coach John L. Smith. The seniors will depart without having beaten Michigan. That’s a shame, because they played hard, and right up to that final heave from Henne to Manningham, they still believed they had a chance.

When you win one of these, it really is fun. But when you lose, the color that beat you is on your face and in your eyes and in the way you act when you get up the next morning. You’re either green with envy, or blue with the news.

Blue again?

Blue again.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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