EAST LANSING — It ended on fourth down, which, to be honest, was where the game was played all day. Dan Enos was scrambling for his life and he let a pass fly in desperation and Michigan’s Lance Dottin intercepted it as if he had known it was coming since Tuesday. He ran in a circle, watched the clock tick to 0:00, then fell to the ground and wiggled in celebration.

Paint it blue. This fantastic rivalry that was anticipated with such heavy breathing turned out to be little more than a slip here and a miss there and a lot of crunching bodies. Which, of course, is just the way Bo Schembechler likes it. The crunching part.

“It was a tough, but not a great victory,” said Schembechler, after the Wolverines wrestled, smothered and finally held off the Spartans, 10-7, to remain undefeated in the Big Ten. “Any time you can get a victory up here, you take it.”

And they took it. Especially since Michigan State seemed more than willing to hand it over. Mistakes? Name them. We’ve got your fumble. We’ve got your interception. We’ve got your missed field goal. We’ve got time ticking away needlessly during a final drive, as receivers failed to get out of bounds.

And mostly what we’ve got is the fourth-quarter, fourth- and-goal on the 1-yard line, the crowd going crazy and the Spartans chomping at the bit. Here was the game. Force against force. Body against body. If State scored, the momentum would surely have carried them to another drive and victory. If Michigan stopped them, it would seem like a death blow. Everyone knew it.

And here came the handoff. Blake Ezor, who had been ripping off yardage on this 78-yard drive, headed for glory and met a wall of white. Smack. Good-bye. He was bent, held up, and dumped, short of his destination, short of a score, short of everything.

Paint it blue.

That goal-line stand was the big thing,” Schembechler said. “That was the key. Our defense has been playing well all year.”

Sound familiar? Heard that for about 20 years? Well. Yeah. In many ways, Saturday was a throwback to the old Michigan- Michigan State games — which is fine if you’re a nostalgia nut, but surprising for those of us who live in the present. Michigan State was supposed to be a little more creative on offense this time, right? (“I was surprised they ran on us so much in the second half,” Schembechler admitted.) And weren’t the Wolverines suddenly Air Elvis, with tall, young quarterback Elvis Grbac leading the way?

Instead, here was the Michigan game plan: Running backs, bring two pairs of shoes. The questionable ground game of Michigan was rediscovered behind Tony Boles and Leroy Hoard, who helped account for much of the 188 yards on the ground. Of course what also might have helped was an injury to Gary Moeller, the Wolverines’ offensive coordinator, who broke his elbow and injured an ankle during the week falling off a practice room podium, and had to coach from the press box booth. The plays went from Moeller through Schembechler to the team. You could just picture that, couldn’t you?

“Bo. Call a slant pass over the middle.”

“Gotcha.”

“What’s the play, coach?”

“Run it off tackle.”

“Bo. Go with the fly pattern to McMurty.”

“Gotcha.”

“What’s the play, coach?”

“Run it off tackle.”

No. We’re kidding. Maybe. Who cares? Not the Michigan fans. It does them proud to see a good old pound-it-out Wolverines slamfest like Saturday. Sort of like hearing “The Victors.” Bo, as the shirts on this campus said all week, may not know Diddly. But he knows how to stuff it up your gut.

Paint it blue.

As for Michigan State? What can be said? The Spartans did not play well. They now have lost to three of the top five teams in the country, but, as defeats go, this was not a good one. They did not play well — not in the first half, anyhow. And by the time they got it together in the second half, it was too late. Or an incomplete effort. An easy field goal by John Langeloh was wide. Ezor did not get in the end zone. Fourth downs.

Even a late touchdown — a pass from Enos to Courtney Hawkins, once again on fourth down — was not enough. The Michigan defense at that point was confident enough to hold off the Spartans one more time. And they did.

You have to wonder whether maybe Miami (Fla.) or Notre Dame isn’t as good as we think, or if Michigan just improved so greatly since Week 1. But the Spartans did not get it done. The walked off the field before a silent crowd, who will have to wait two years for another showdown up here.

Paint them blue.

Of course, no one needed to be told what this showdown meant. Not here. Not in Michigan. Such is the nature of this Green and Blue rivalry that the World Series, which began also began Saturday, was referred to as “the other game on TV.”

How many times does the winner wind up in the Rose Bowl? How many times does the winner go on to be a force in the national rankings? And it is, of course, more than football, it is bragging rights, the kind of game that gets the governor and the factory worker up in arms, screaming about who should be favored, certain that their school will show those cross-state fools a thing or two.

And it was Michigan who did it. It was Tony Boles darting across the field, escaping tackles, realizing the press notices he had gotten in the preseason. It was Vada Murray leaping to block a Langeloh field-goal attempt. And it was Leroy Hoard, the bruising running back, plowing through the defense, scoring the Wolverines’ only touchdown on a fourth-and-goal from the 1- yard line.

Yep.

Fourth down again.

Before the final quarter, a band of Michigan Staters did a choreographed routine where they stomp on a Michigan flag. You can only hope they enjoyed it. It was the only time the Spartans were on top all day.

Paint it blue. CUTLINE: Jim Niebling of Portland, Mich., plays his sousaphone with the Strolling Spartans before the Michigan-Michigan State game Saturday in East Lansing. Michigan State coach George Perles, left, and Michigan coach Bo Schembechler greet each other before Saturday’s Big Ten football game in East Lansing. Schembechler’s Wolverines beat the Spartans, 10-7.

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