Just before the final snap of what he called “the state championship,” Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh pulled aside his quarterback, Shea Patterson, and said, “This year, after you kneel down, keep the ball. Don’t throw it up in the air.”
“I’ve got another idea,” Patterson replied.
Moments later, when the game ended, Patterson trotted over and handed that ball to Harbaugh. It was a nice moment, the senior quarterback in his final game against the rival Spartans, giving the pigskin to his coach, who’d just earned the first home win of his career against them.
“I shoved (the ball) back in his backpack,” Harbaugh later said, smiling. And when someone asked him how he felt about blowing out MSU, 44-10, he answered, “Happy. Ten-out-of-ten happy.”
That’s that. As rivalry games go, Harbaugh’s math was accurate: This was 10-out-of-10 if you wear maize and blue, and a 0-for-0 if you wear green and white. Poor Spartans. After surrendering a 98-yard touchdown drive and a bad interception, what was left of their day, and, in truth, their season, disappeared in a few eyeblinks at the start of the fourth quarter.
Trailing by 17, clinging to their last hopes of a comeback, the Spartans lined up on fourth-and-1 at their own 45.
They drew a flag for a false start.
So they punted.
The punt was blocked.
So they came out for defense.
And Michigan threw a rocket through their lungs.
A whipping first down touchdown pass from Patterson to a leaping Nico Collins put U-M ahead, 34-10. It was time for the choir to sing vespers for the 2019 Spartans.
They are 4-6 and will be lucky if they finish .500. Even if they earn a bowl game, it will feel like a participation ribbon in second grade. There’s a whole heap of rebuild that needs to be done in East Lansing, and while the coaching is not as big a problem as everyone is screaming about, the waters are churning restlessly.
But that’s just half the story.
‘As good as I’ve seen them’
“There was something special about the vibe we had today,” said Ronnie Bell, the young Michigan receiver who had a fantastic day, charting 150 yards on nine catches. And it’s true, in the annual showdown of our collegiate rivals, we saw one disappointing season (MSU) all but officially end, while the other retain a red circle on the calendar two weekends from now, a last chance to salvage the banner of “things have finally turned the corner.”
That of course would mean beating Ohio State, a task that still looks like taking apart the Empire State Building brick by brick. But credit should be given to Harbaugh’s team — and coaching staff — for the thorough domination this season of the other two big rivals: MSU and Notre Dame.
The Wolverines have beaten them by a collective score of 99-24.
That’s impressive, no matter the loss to Wisconsin, or whatever happens against the Buckeyes. And it makes you wonder if Bell had been able to catch that late pass against Penn State, and U-M had somehow won in overtime, what the shading of the Wolverines’ College Football Playoff chances would be right now.
But that’s for never-never land. Here in the real world, all we know is Michigan (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) won its second straight over Michigan State in beyond-convincing fashion.
“As good as I’ve seen them play,” Harbaugh said of his squad. He listed passing, receiving, defense, special teams, tackling, punt blocking and field-goal kicking as the high points. All he left out was the Gatorade guy.
It’s true, the Wolverines were firing on most cylinders in the briskly cold sunshine Saturday afternoon. The defense had two fine interceptions and held the Spartans to a meager 54 yards rushing and 166 yards passing. Khaleke Hudson blocked yet another punt. And Michigan’s passing game was too much for the MSU defense.
Patterson had a career day, finding receivers from the pocket and on the run. He finished with four touchdown passes, 384 yards and no picks.
“I’d call that a whale of a game!” Harbaugh exulted. Patterson was more low-key. But he admitted this game was “special” given the history.
“I wish I had two more shots at them” said the quarterback, who transferred from Mississippi in 2017.
The Spartans will be just as happy to see him graduate. In his two games against MSU, Patterson has gone 38-for-58, 596 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s not dominance. That’s ownership.
“It was awesome,” Patterson said.
‘Time for them to leave’
Now, the irony here is that, in watching Saturday’s game, it seemed clear that MSU could not match talent with Michigan. That could be due to injuries or depth, but the Michigan receivers were largely open by the time Patterson hit them, and the Michigan defense cut through the Spartans’ line time and time again.
The irony will come in two weeks, when experts predict the same comparison will be made between Michigan and Ohio State. We’ll see. You can only run with the horses in your stable.
But while MSU clearly needs more size and speed and playmakers, I would not put all of this on Mark Dantonio. The schemes were not at fault Saturday. The execution was. “I don’t like losing to these guys,” Dantonio told the media.
But be honest. Did anyone expect them to win this year? The Spartans slinked in having lost four straight, while Michigan hasn’t lost since the heartbreaker to Penn State a month ago.
So we had two teams heading in the opposite direction before a ball was even kicked off. Still, there was never going to be empathy. Not from either side. Someone asked Josh Metellus, Michigan’s senior defensive back, what he was yelling at the Spartans when Saturday’s game was over.
“I was telling them to go home,” he answered, unapologetically. “It was time for them to leave. They didn’t deserve to be in our stadium.”
Metellus also criticized the chippiness of the Spartans, which included personal foul calls and an ejection for a late hit on Patterson. To be fair, there was the typical rough stuff by both sides, with late hits and taunting penalties, one for a Spartan hovering over a defender, one for a Wolverine flexing his muscles.
But the winner gets to do the talking.
“We play football over here,” Metellus said,. “I don’t know what they do over there, but we play football, and it showed today.”
Winning football, for now. Lost in the pinball scoring was the fact that Harbaugh shed a big monkey off his back. It was his first victory at the Big House over either Michigan State or Ohio State. In the previous losses, his team had lost the turnover battle 8-0. On Saturday, the Wolverines committed only one ultimately harmless fumble. And after allowing an opening touchdown to the visiting rivals, U-M went on a 44-3 scoring march.
A 44-3 run? In a rivalry game?
Well. As Metellus said: “It doesn’t have to be close.”
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.