ANN ARBOR — The biggest problem was the referee. He wouldn’t get out of the way.

“Move, ref,” whispered Michigan punter Mike Gillette, hoping Michigan State’s defense wouldn’t hear him. “Move. Come on. Move. . . . “

It was like a tank that had to stop for a rabbit. Like that scene in “The Untouchables,” in which the baby carriage is falling down the stairs and the hero has to make a choice — get the bad guys or save the child. Only here there was no choice. Gillette was going to fake this punt and run like hell. And if the ref was in his way, well, the ref would have to go.

And he did.

“I think I may have touched him,” Gillette said later.

Well. No.

Actually, you knocked him down.

But who cares? It was the play of the day Saturday, the magic moment, a fake punt that turned into a 40-yard touchdown run, sealed the game for the Wolverines — they won, 17-3 — and gave them bragging rights in these parts for the next 365 days. What a play! What a fake!

Uh, the referee came out unharmed.

In case you were worried.

It’s a Blue year now. A fake punt? Michigan? That’s the play that wins it over Michigan State? Well, why not? We’ve seen enough of the grind-’em-out, defensive wrestles. A little shenanigans might be good for the soul.

Besides, up to that point, the game had been head-butting and slow-moving. And it was still close: U-M 10, MSU 3. So with time running out in the third quarter, coach Bo Schembechler — who reaches for razzle-dazzle about as often as Jamaicans reach for snow shovels — gave the signal to Gillette. Do it.

He did it. Took off around left end like a running back on a mission, dodged tacklers, pointed fingers and switched the football from right hand to left, following blocks as he headed for glory. Forty yards later, he crossed the goal and fell into the roar of 106,208 screaming fans. Touchdown. Turnaround.

It’s a Blue year now.

“Who called that?” someone asked Schembechler afterward. “Why’d you call it? When did you decide to call it?”

“I don’t want to give too much away about that call,” he said, stifling a chuckle, “other than to say it worked effectively on that play.”

Which means . . . he might use it again.

Again?

“When was the last time you faked a punt and ran it in for a touchdown?” Gillette was asked in the boisterous U-M locker room.

“Never!” he said. “I never ran in a faked punt in my career. Not even in high school.”

Well. No time like the present. Not only because this was the turning moment in a big game; it might have been a turning moment in Mike Gillette’s season. He had always been the rock, the unflappable one, the placekicker who could whistle during a time-out, scratch his elbow, then drill a 50-yard field goal as time expired. Coming into this season, he had never missed a field goal that decided a U-M game.

But this year, his senior season — when Schembechler had given him punting and kickoff duties as well — Gillette was suddenly shaken. Two missed field goals in the first two games (against Notre Dame and Miami) had led to two losses. Instead of an an undefeated season and a crack at a national championship, the Wolverines were 2-2.

“He was depressed some after the first loss,” said Mark Messner, U-M’s All-America defensive tackle and Gillette’s roommate. The two of them had stayed up all night after the 19-17 loss at Notre Dame, talking it over, trying to ease the pain.

“That’s why I was really happy to see him score on (Saturday’s) play. In the locker room afterwards he led the team in ‘The Victors.’ And he said to everybody, ‘I’m glad I was able to give something back to you guys. I felt like I let you down some earlier this year.”

Consider the debt repaid. It might be the first time in a long while that one player scored a touchdown, kicked the extra point, then kicked off. Geez. Why not get him to sell hot dogs in between? But the fake was the play that made the difference — in a game that, to that point, had been as sluggish as midweek baseball. Michigan had posted better statistics (particularly on offense), but the Spartans’ defense was strong, and two third-quarter MSU interceptions surely had Schembechler flashing replays of last season, when the Spartans intercepted seven passes and rolled to victory, glory, and eventually, a Big Ten title.

Not this time. Following the fake-punt touchdown, Michigan intercepted a pass, sacked MSU quarterback Bobby McAllister three times and controlled the ball for nearly 11 of the 15 remaining minutes.

“Was this particularly sweet because of what happened last season?” Schembechler was asked.

“Oh, yeah, let’s face it,” he said. “When they win, they live well for a year. When we win, we live well for a year. We’ll enjoy this for the next 365 days — and then we’ll do it again.”

So Michigan rolls on. And what of the Spartans? Sadly, they are coming apart. The echoes of last season’s upset of Michigan are now officially silenced. And the memories of their January Rose Bowl now seem as brittle as the October leaves. With an 0-4-1 record, the green and white can barely hope for a minor bowl game — and only if they win the rest of their games.

“Everybody is discouraged,” coach George Perles admitted. How could they not be? If 1987 was The Year of the Spartan, 1988 is The Spartan Year. Nothing is working on offense. (The Spartans lack such confidence that on fourth-and-goal at the 1 in the third quarter, they opted for a field goal.)

And nothing is working on luck. Saturday, the Spartans saw the following happen: Blake Ezor fumble; a field goal hit the upright; a blocked punt-turned-touchdown called back for an offside penalty.

And that all happened before the fourth quarter.

The final indignity was the fake kick (“That,” Perles said, “was the one that broke our back.”) When the final gun sounded, Michigan State fans trudged

back to their buses. A middle-aged woman shrugged. “Well,” she said, “at least our band was great.”

It’s a Blue year now. Michigan is undefeated in the Big Ten, and the 1988 clash between the two toughest college teams in the state will forever be remembered as the day the punter ran away from everybody.

“The only thing that would have made that play better,” said a grinning Messner, as he watched Gillette being shuffled off to a press conference, “was

if he dragged two defenders into the end zone with him. I think Mike really

wanted to hit somebody.”

Sorry.

He had to settle for the ref.

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