There was a crazy ending, though not like last year, but the day belongs to Jabrill Peppers, Jim Harbaugh and Wolverines
EAST LANSING – There was craziness at the end (again) on a routine play in the final seconds (again) with the ball going the wrong way (again) and the crowd in disbelief (again). Only this time it wasn’t a muffed punt that turned a winner into a loser; it was a two-point conversion try that was fumbled by Michigan State, picked up by Jabrill Peppers, Michigan’s resident Superman, and returned 87 yards for … well, what was it for? Half the crowd didn’t know. Two points? Six points? All they knew was that as Peppers raced down the field, he kept getting faster, and the gap between him and the nearest Spartan grew larger, and as he broke the plane of the end zone by leaning into an imaginary tape, Jabrill Peppers was The Present and the Spartans and their dominance were The Past.
“At first I wasn’t trying to run that fast,” Peppers would say after the 32-23 victory that kept Michigan perfect (8-0) and pushed Michigan State (2-6) down another flight of stairs. “Then I heard someone behind me and I was like, ‘OK, stop trying to be pretty, just get the ball in the end zone.’ ”
Tide, turned. Mark this day down, rivalry fans. For all the crazy headlines and social media hysteria since Jim Harbaugh came back to Ann Arbor, Saturday in Spartan Stadium was the first day that Michigan football was officially back on track.
Remember, Harbaugh wasn’t hired to beat Rutgers, Colorado or Florida. He didn’t return to go 10-3 and make a quality bowl game (as he did in his first season last year). He came back to beat Michigan State and Ohio State, to win the Big Ten, and to compete for a national championship. That’s what a Michigan football coach aspires to. That’s what the program wants. And despite all the noise of Harbaugh’s embryonic tenure, Saturday was his first official scratch off the big bucket list.
It will not likely be the last.
“We were tested in all phases,” Harbaugh said after the win. “And we were sure that was going to be the case. … We made plays. We got the W.”
On this warm afternoon of sunshine and clouds, it continued to rain on the Spartans’ 2016 parade, while the bright rays kept illuminating the Maize and Blue, whose fans filled so many seats Saturday in East Lansing, it felt more like a town hall than a home field.
But it was, as Harbaugh admitted, a test, nowhere near the blowout that many predicted. The Spartans virtually matched the celebrated Wolverines in total yards, time of possession and first downs, and actually outrushed them, 217 yards to 192. But Michigan won by standing tough on the tough plays, by converting enough third downs and stopping enough fourth downs, by using a budding star quarterback (Wilton Speight, 16-25, 244 yards) and a lights-out reliable receiver, (Amara Darboh, eight catches, 165 yards) and capitalizing when it had the chance, six scores on six red-zone tries.
Darboh, in particular, was eye-opening. His eight catches ran the gamut — a 43-yard bomb, a one-handed grab with a defender hanging on him, a strike across the middle, a leaping catch over a defender. But what they mostly had in common was that they moved the chains. They kept drives alive. You want to know how good he was Saturday?
“Amara Darboh,” Harbaugh said, and then he started laughing. Just laughing.
That’s how good he was.
Fight to the finish
The Spartans, meanwhile, made too many mistakes, threw an interception, missed a kick and could not get a yard when they needed it. In the second quarter, they couldn’t convert a fourth-and-1. And in the third quarter, they had four chances from the 2-yard line and came away with nothing.
“We gotta get 1 yard, I don’t care what they draw up, I don’t care what we draw up,” coach Mark Dantonio would later say. “You gotta be able to get 1 yard.”
Nonetheless, the Spartans did not let go of their dominance easily. The team that had won seven of the last eight meetings in this once-even rivalry held onto that persona like a dog refusing to surrender a bone, even as a Goliath was trying to pull it from its teeth. The Spartans scratched and clawed from a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit, to within a touchdown before that final bizarre two-point try, a head-scratching play that led to a highlight reel clip for Peppers. Although the game was all but over when the Spartans pulled to within 30-23 — one second left — Michigan State was desperate to go down swinging, not kicking.
“We never stopped playing, we never quit, we showed resiliency, we showed toughness,” Dantonio said. “ … If there’s one second on the clock, we’re gonna go for two. Even if it’s a mental thing. … We went for two. It’s unfortunate it ended up in a big celebration for them. That was certainly not the intent.”
No. Seeing Jabrill Peppers do his Carl Lewis impersonation across the end zone was definitely not the intent.
Fast start for both
Now, that’s not to say the Spartans didn’t have their moments. In fact, they played a much better game than Michigan, if you only watched the first seven minutes. MSU opened against arguably the best college defense in the nation by smacking it in the mouth, moving 75 yards, with sophomore tailback L.J. Scott getting the ball on 11 of the 12 plays, running behind great blocks and single-handedly shredding the Wolverines’ tacklers.
It was a sight. The Green and White faithful were on their feet. It made you wonder if the Spartans hadn’t put a season’s worth of desire into this one contest.
If so, the Michigan offense won the game on the next drive, by coming right back and squashing any chance of upset momentum taking root.
Taking much less time than the Spartans, Michigan scored without ever reaching third down, using four different rushers and a couple of passes to go its own 80 yards, capped off by Peppers racing to the pylon and diving over it for a touchdown as if trying to smother a grenade.
Peppers, whom, I believe, plays every position, sells hot dogs, drives the team bus and delivers the official prayer, would finish the game with five rushes, a punt return, a kick return, seven tackles, one sack, a crucial fourth-down tackle, two points on the final fumble recovery … and one backflip. The backflip came when Michigan finally took a knee, three hours and 46 minutes after this slugfest started.
“That’s something I always did when I was younger,” he said. “When I get very excited, I flip a little bit.”
A little bit?
Well, why not? This felt like a long game and the emotion when it was done was raw and exhausting. The Wolverines had the exultant feeling of finally beating the bully up the road (remember, most of the team could not recall the last time Michigan won in this series, back in 2012, and none of them could remember the last win in East Lansing, which went back to 2007). In the locker room afterward, the giant Paul Bunyan trophy stood, ready for pictures, and players posed with it.
“Aw. Man, it’s been a long time coming,” Peppers said. “Last year, I heard they had already put him in (our) locker room and then that crazy play happened … But now I know he’s coming back to AA and we’re each gonna get our own little Paul Bunyan trophies. I can’t wait.”
Added Darboh: “Any time we can get Paul back to Ann Arbor, it’s a great thing for us.”
Who knew a lumberjack would mean so much to a football team?
But then, it makes sense. The Wolverines are tying to chop down the negativity and subpar results of the recent past. Saturday was certainly part of that. The Wolverines were indeed tested by this contest. And if they and the coaches are smart, they will learn from it. Their game Saturday might have been good enough to win, but it wouldn’t hold up against an Ohio State or an Alabama. They have to know that. And afterward they tried to keep the game in perspective.
“No one really saw (this game) as ‘Oh, my gosh, this is the biggest rivalry ever! We need to get off this (three)-game losing streak!’ ” said Speight. “We just need to get to the next win.”
Still, no amount of perspective will ever diminish what this means to fans around the state — on both sides. It’s been a year since Blake O’Neill tried to sidekick that bad snap and Michigan fans watched a sure win disappear down a sideline. Saturday, they watched Peppers make like a sprinter, break the tape, and break the stranglehold that the Spartans have had on this series.
Tide, turned. Rivalry back on track. And if we’ve learned anything, it’s that nobody, when these teams play, should leave the stadium until the final snap. You never know what you might miss.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.