EAST LANSING — The game hadn’t even started, and Devin Bush Jr. was trying to dig up the Spartan logo with his cleats. The Michigan linebacker hoofed at the midfield grass so aggressively, I thought he was going to get down on all fours and charge at a green cape.
It was nasty, unsportsmanlike — and prophetic. For by the time this wet, angry day was done, the Wolverines had ripped the roots out from under the Spartans’ lawn, with a 21-7 beatdown.
Snuffed and chuffed. Snuffed, as in a Michigan State team that could only muster 94 yards of total offense, a single touchdown, and not one third-down conversion all day.
And chuffed, as in a Michigan team that was fuming before the game even started, claiming MSU players formed their traditional marching line, locked arms, and plowed downfield through several Michigan players who were warming up, as if they were invisible, knocking loose a player’s helmet and another’s headset.
And that was BEFORE the kickoff.
“Total bush league,” Jim Harbaugh would call it.
U-M ‘never blinked’
It was just one element of a poorly behaved, terrifically defended game that took two hours longer than it should have, and felt even longer than that. On a day when the sky had multiple personalities — sunny, cloudy, rainy, stormy — the teams on the field were equally schizophrenic. They hated each other, yet for much of the game, kept giving each other opportunities.
Michigan kept blowing its offensive drives. MSU didn’t get any offensive drives. Did ANYONE want to win this annual rivalry? For so many turns in the play and the weather — including a 75-minute severe weather delay that emptied the stadium — you wondered whether the Wolverines would have one scoring drive they wouldn’t mess up, and whether the Spartans would have one scoring drive at all.
There was more punting than a room full of politicians talking about campaign finance reform.
But when this game finally turned, it turned for good. Late in the third quarter, Michigan’s Shea Patterson dropped back on first down and threw a moonshot down the sideline that landed perfectly in the hands of the blazing Donovan Peoples-Jones, who slipped the grip of a diving Spartan defender and raced 79 yards to the end zone.
“That was the most perfect pass that he’s delivered,” Peoples-Jones later said.
Added Patterson: “Donovan in one-on-one coverage? Good luck with that.”
It was a critical turning point — of the game, and perhaps of U-M’s season, which now stands at 7-1 and might be championship-worthy heading into Columbus on Thanksgiving weekend.
Because until that touchdown pass on Saturday, Michigan’s offense seemed doomed to make the least of its opportunities. It was like watching a man go to the ATM every five minutes, only to keep reading he had insufficient funds.
Here were the starting field positions for U-M’s last four possessions of the first half: their own 49 and 42, and MSU’s 43 and 48. And they scored nothing. Nothing? Hey, guys. When you get half a field, it should be twice as easy.
Instead, all the Wolverines could muster was a terribly missed field-goal attempt. They went into halftime with a 7-0 lead that should have been two or three times that.
And then, come the third quarter, Michigan fumbled away its first possession on its own 7-yard line. The Spartans cashed in with their best play of the game (their only play that really worked) a double reverse pass to a wide open quarterback Brian Lewerke, alone in the end zone, and just like that, a totally lopsided game was tied 7-7. It would have been easy for Michigan to fall back to bad habits, given its history of bumbling away recent Michigan State showdowns.
Instead, “our team never blinked,” Harbaugh said proudly. “The entire time they played hard, they played smart. From the pre-game shenanigans, there was no backing down.”
‘An absolute gem’
Not that you can blame Harbaugh or his guys for pushing out their chests. Despite their reliable winning records each season, this was the first time since 2006 that the Wolverines had beaten a ranked team on the road, and only the third time in the last 11 tries that they’ve beaten MSU.
Such numbers shouldn’t mean much in this rivalry. It’s a year-by-year war. You can say, U-M has won three of the last 11, or you can say Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio have split the last four. All depends on the point you want to make.
The point Michigan wanted to make was clear: No more shooting themselves in the foot. The Wolverines were largely responsible for their own downfalls in the previous two Harbaugh-era losses to the Spartans. Last fall, in Ann Arbor, they turned the ball over five times and lost by four points. Two years earlier, they had a lead in the final seconds before the infamous failed punt that was returned for a wining touchdown.
Not this time. The Wolverines won largely by eliminating any chances for them to blow it — meaning limiting their own turnovers (only one) and getting the Spartans off the field fast.
That last part was overwhelmingly accomplished. U-M held MSU to just 15 yards rushing on 23 tries. Lewerke completed a total of five passes – five passes? – in 25 attempts. I can’t recall a single important play where the U-M defensive backs looked out of position or let a receiver get the best of them.
The MSU offense had the ball for less than 19 minutes.
“The defense was an absolute gem,” Harbaugh told the media. “The kind of statistics you dream about.”
‘Blah, blah, blah’
Harbaugh has a few offensive players to thank as well. Patterson, his quarterback, was once again terrific with his feet. And even better was Karan Higdon, the running back who carried the ball 33 times, or nearly a third of U-M’s offensive snaps. He rushed for 144 yards against the best run defense in the nation, bulling his way through the line and making nasty cuts to wedge yards against a stingy defensive line.
Remember, both teams had to sit through an hour-plus weather delay, as the stadium was cleared and the skies dumped torrential rains on the field. It’s possible for a team to lose its edge in such a delay after building to a frenzy all week.
But Higdon only smiled when asked how the Wolverines handled it. He said, “We relaxed, kicked our feet up. We knew they didn’t want to play us. They were tired. They were hurting…We knew they weren’t gonna be able to last with us…”
And after it was over, Higdon called the win “big time” in terms of national respect.
“Every week it seems that…they find a reason to critique us about why we don’t deserve to be a top-ranked team. Last week (against Wisconsin) it was we don’t show up in big games. This week it was Michigan State’s got the No. 1 run defense…blah blah blah.”
Wait. Did he just say “blah, blah, blah”?
“We showed up and we did our job,” Higdon added. “That’s all that mattered.”
Snuffed and chuffed
Make no mistake. Harbaugh may have wanted to amp down the noise earlier in the week when he said the clichés in this rivalry had been “plowed.” But on Saturday, both teams were plowing away, chippy and chirpy. I lost track of the unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. There was pushing and shoving and jawing. The Michigan players claimed MSU did the trash talking first, and while the MSU players were more muted, I imagine they’d take umbrage with that.
And of course the latest bombshell is now Harbaugh calling the pregame stuff “bush league” — at least twice — and Dantonio responding with “That’s BS. You guys get your cameras out. It’s all on Fox. I’m not gonna go to that.” Then later he said, “Bush league? Mmmm.”
Snuffed and chuffed. The loser always has to bite his tongue in this one, and the winner can stick out his tongue and wiggle his fingers. Or try and unearth the opposing team’s midfield logo.
“I just got caught up,’” Bush told the media about his kickfest, claiming the MSU arm-lock walk prompted it. “I did what I did. I can’t take it back.”
But whoever did what in warmups, the deserving team won the actual game Saturday. Michigan’s defense was indeed gem-like, on a day that was decidedly non-shiny. And afterwards, Higdon summed it up as if reciting a poem:
“We came here,
they were talking trash.
when the whistle blew
there was nothing they could do.”
Just another five-hour, storm-ridden, angry, controversial, Michigan-Michigan State football game.
Aren’t they fun?
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out his latest book, “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven,” online and in bookstores nationwide. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.