The game was barely history before it became secondary. Moments after Michigan thumped Michigan State on the football field, a group of Spartan players assaulted a Wolverine player in the Michigan Stadium tunnel, roughing him up and shoving him to the ground in a violent scene captured on video that has already circumvented the digital globe.
It tarnished the night, a 29-7 win for Michigan. It tarnished the rivalry. It was, as U-M athletic director Warde Manuel said, “completely unacceptable.” But it is also not surprising. The tunnel into the Big House — the only way onto the field — is so legendary it was recently given its own name. But it is a funnel for frustration and a tinderbox for tempers, both of which were boiling over after the annual rivalry game.
“Two of our players were assaulted,” U-M coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I saw the one video, 10 on 1, pretty bad. … One of our players has a nasal injury. Could be a broken nose. (It’s) very unfortunate.”
No. Unfortunate is when you slip on ice. Unfortunate is when you miss the lottery by one digit. This was an ugly, nasty fight, yet it was almost predictable — especially after a verbal confrontation two weeks ago in that same tunnel during U-M’s game against Penn State.
“The one tunnel is a problem,’’ Nittany Lions coach James Franklin told the media after that skirmish. You’ll hear a lot more of that in the coming days. Despite trying to stagger the times teams can enter, there’s no separation at the Big House should players get mixed together. And it’s fair to ask, for a program that once spent a quarter of a billion dollars on luxury boxes, why they can’t figure a way to build a second exit to the locker rooms.
Because you don’t want to see what everyone is seeing on that video this morning. It looks like U-M sophomore defensive back Ja’Den McBurrows gets seriously roughed up by several different MSU players, who at one point have him on the ground, then banged against a wall, then a door, then back to the ground, before he scrambles to his feet and hurries away.
It’s not an accident. It’s not a misunderstanding. It’s a beating. And if all the player suffered was a broken nose, he was lucky. (The second player Harbaugh referred to is, at the time of this writing, not known.)
Football is obviously a terribly violent sport, prone to inflaming tempers especially after a bad loss. But when the game is done, the violence must be done as well. That may seem contradictory, but it has to happen.
Because if you do on the street what those players do in that video, you get arrested.
A black eye to the rivalry
The fight threw a damp blanket over U-M’s postgame enthusiasm, with Harbaugh admitting that in the postgame locker room, they were focused on the teammates in the assault.
“You want to protect your players. Ten on one, whatever it was, it was bad. It needs to be investigated.”
And it will be. But the damage done to Michigan State’s program is already taking hold. A sinking season for Mel Tucker’s program will now be shaded by this incident, and questions will move from football to law and from play- calling to discipline. Coaches will implore the media to “focus on football.” And no one will be happy.
“We’re gonna have to figure out what happened,” Tucker told the media afterwards.
That’s an understatement. Like it or not, video changes everything. And several of Tucker’s guys can clearly be seen attacking the lone Michigan player. It’s not going away. “Figuring out what happened” is only one part of what comes next.
No one will remember the action on the field
The attack marked an ugly end to a less than pretty night. The football game — remember that? — was hardly a thing of beauty. Michigan won by kicking five field goals, by riding the indefatigable Blake Corum for third downs conversions and touchdowns, and by stuffing MSU on critical fourth downs, including one in shadow of the Wolverines’ goal line.
The Spartans went nowhere after one touchdown in the first quarter, and they finished with a meager 37 yards rushing — a far cry from their huge win last year, when they rode Kenneth Walker’s 197 yards and five touchdowns to hand Michigan its only regular season defeat.
No such karma this time. U-M had the better talent, the better line play and the better adjustments at halftime. As the game progressed, their dominance showed.
“This game shouldn’t have been as close as it was,” said quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who managed the offense admiringly, passing for 167 yards and running for 50 more.
“I wanted to blow them out,” added Corum, who had another stellar game, 177 yards, two touchdowns, and more third-down conversions than you could count. “This should have been a blowout.”
Maybe so. Michigan only punted once all night. Had the field goals been touchdowns, U-M would have won by 40.
But that’s imaginary. And this night, sadly, was all about reality. The reality is this: a venerable tunnel is now a video assault scene. And a certain amount of soul searching must be done.
“This is not what a rivalry should be about,” Manuel said. “It’s not how (the game) should be remembered.”
Too late for that. When the game turns into a street fight, you got trouble, and it’s not blue or green. More like code red.