ANN ARBOR — It was the end of the line. Their final roll of the Wolverines-Spartans dice. You get four years in college to build your moments, and then, poof, you’re history, and both Dave Yarema and Jim Harbaugh knew they’d wake up this morning no longer able to say “Wait until next year” for their schools to meet. There is no next year for seniors.

This was it? This was it.

“How big is this rivalry for you personally?” someone would ask a tired Harbaugh, the Michigan quarterback, when the 79th meeting between these two teams was finally over.

“It’s big,” he would say, his eyes bulging for emphasis. “As a senior, if we lost, I’d have to hear about it the rest of my life.”

The rest of his life? Could a game be that big? This one could. This rivalry. One day a year, the state draws a line down its center, and says, take a side, please. Wolverine or Spartan? Green-and-white or maize-and-blue?

This was it? This was it.

“How big is this rivalry for you?” someone would ask Yarema, the MSU quarterback.

“This is the State of Michigan,” he would say. “They’re Michigan, we’re Michigan State.”

Doesn’t that explain it? And when they kicked the ball off Saturday, and the 106,141 rose to their feet, Yarema and Harbaugh were front page, bold type. Eye of the storm. Harbaugh was leading a Bo Schembechler team that had finally accepted pass as more than a four-letter word. And Michigan State, missing its star running back, Lorenzo White, knew Yarema’s savvy and strong arm would have to be the difference.

The dice were rolled, they spun around . . . A disarming defense

The dice came up Michigan, 27-6. The realists and the analysts and the boys in Vegas knew this would not be a close game. The passion was close. The talent was too one-sided.

Michigan’s defense was a small closet. Every time the Spartans moved, they seemed to hit a wall. One possession ended in a fumble. Another in a blocked punt. Another in a sack.

Meanwhile, the U-M offense rolled. Harbaugh had a good day. An up-and-up day. A 42-yard touchdown bomb. A 35-yard sideline grenade. Two-hundred and nineteen yards. Up and up.

And Yarema? Yarema would meet the devils of frustration, disguised as Michigan linemen, disguised as Michigan defensive backs. He threw just five passes in the first half. Five passes?

“Did you want to pass more?” someone asked.

“The receivers were covered a lot,” he said, his head down, his hair wet, his eyes somewhere far away. “There was a lot of pressure. More than we expected. . . . Our heads just weren’t in the game.”

This was it? The big game. Surely it wasn’t the way Yarema had imagined it. His team had won in 1984, when Harbaugh left the game with a broken arm. Harbaugh’s team had won in 1985, a game Yarema missed because of injury.

So they were even against each other coming into this one. Senior year. The one you take with you. Who doesn’t want to be the hero?

There can be only one.

“I was so glad we won this for all the seniors on the team,” Harbaugh said in the crowded press room afterward. “That’s what meant the most. Michigan is the team to beat in the Big Ten.”

Across the parking lot, Yarema spoke softly. “It’s hard for all our seniors,” he said. “There are a lot of players on our team that Michigan wouldn’t even recruit. They live in the state, but Michigan didn’t even want them. There was a lot of pride in this game. That’s what hurts the most.” Never-ending story

Coaches can play these rivalry games dozen of times. Alumni have seen 10, 20, 30 of them. But the young players who take the hits and taste the glory get only four shots at most. And the last one can never be gracious to both sides.

So here was the final picture of the 1986 edition: Harbaugh, standing in the human cradle of his teammates, laughing, slapping high fives, watching his backup finish this off.

While across the field stood Yarema, hands on his hips, dripping frustration, his muscles both tired and tight.

“Do you think you’ll miss this rivalry?” someone would ask Harbaugh.

“Oh, yeah,” he said quickly. “Definitely.”

“Will you miss this rivalry?” Yarema was asked.

The expectation was no. But Yarema paused, then he grinned. “Yeah, I will,” he said. “I’ll still be part of it in the years to come. I mean. . . .

He paused again. “I’ll still be part of it. I’ll just be . . . a spectator.”

Their stitches in this football tapestry was in, and next year it would be new names, new arms. But as long as there are rivalries the equation never changes. One smiling quarterback. And one with wet hair and a sad, faraway look.

This was it? This was it.

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