EAST LANSING — The ball sat innocently on the 1-yard line, as if to say,

“Take me, I’m yours.” But who was it talking to? Michigan, who was guarding the castle? Or Michigan State, who was threatening to storm it? It was, after all, fourth down, glory to go.

“GOTTA SCORE!” they screamed in the MSU huddle.

“CAN’T LET THEM SCORE!” came the echo from the U-M side.

And this, for all the hype and noise, was the game. The moment they wait for in these parts, gosh, all year, really. Force against force. Body against body. Michigan led, 10-0, when fate set this stage, but it was fourth quarter, fourth down, and if State scored, the momentum would surely carry the Spartans to another drive and victory. You could feel it. You could taste it in the noise from the crowd, most of whom were wearing green and praying hard.

And here came the handoff. Blake Ezor, who had been ripping off yardage since this drive began more than seven minutes earlier, headed for the promised land . . . and met a wall of white. Smack! He was bent, held up, and dumped short of his destination, short of a score, short of everything. The referees signaled Michigan ball. The crowd sagged like a dropped curtain. The football gods nodded silently.

Paint it blue.

“That was the key,” said a happy Bo Schembechler, after his Wolverines hung on to defeat the Spartans, 10-7, and remain undefeated in the Big Ten Conference. “It was a nice, hard- hitting game. There were a lot of good collisions out there.”

In fact, the collisions would likely be the highlight film. This annual showdown, anticipated with such heavy breathing, turned out to be close, yes, well-played, no, with a lot of crunching bodies in between.

It was, for traditionalists, a return to the old days, smash ’em, bash ’em, run off tackle and rely on your defense. I’m surprised the crowd wasn’t wearing raccoon coats and zoot suits. Here was Tony Boles, running 22 times, across the field, through the middle. Here was Leroy Hoard, taking the shortest path with the most resistance, banging his body for yard after yard.

And here, mostly, was the Michigan defense, bend but don’t break, on that fourth-and-one — and on the final play of the game, when Lance Dottin intercepted Dan Enos’ desperation pass, ran in a circle until the clock read 0:00, then fell to the ground and wiggled in celebration.

Paint it blue.

This was a tough game to lose,” said MSU coach George Perles. But then, aren’t they all? The truth is, this was not a terrifically played game, not by a long shot. Michigan State nearly gave it away in the first half. Michigan nearly handed it over in the second half.

It was sleepy for three quarters and exhilarating for one. It marked the return of the ground game for Michigan and the return of conservatism for MSU. And, in the end, the whole thing could be boiled down to fourth downs. Consider:
* First quarter, fourth-and-three from the Michigan 19. The Spartans try a field goal to get on the board. It is blocked by a leaping Vada Murray, who later admits he played basketball in high school.
* First quarter, fourth-and-goal from the MSU 1. Michigan decides to go for it and gets it, when Hoard bursts through a crowd. It will be the Wolverines’ only touchdown.
* Second quarter, fourth down at the MSU 29. Michigan misses a field goal, but State is called for offsides. The mistake gives the ball back to the Wolverines. Four plays later — on another fourth down — they try a field goal and succeed. It will ultimately be the margin of victory.
* Fourth quarter, fourth down on the Michigan 17. John Langeloh steps up for an easy MSU field goal — again the margin of victory — and misses.

That’ll do it.

But wait. Let’s get back to that Michigan rushing attack.

“We heard some criticism of our running game,” said Boles, who gained 100 yards on the day, “and we took it out on MSU.”

Indeed, the days of Air Elvis may be gone for the Wolverines. The wunderkind quarterback named Grbac threw just 15 times, many of them too high or too hard, and most of the big plays were on the ground. Let Schembechler smell that, and forget it. The running backs should start bringing three pairs of shoes to the games.

Of course what also might have helped this return to Earth was an injury to Gary Moeller, the Wolverines offensive coordinator, who hurt his ankle and broke his elbow falling off a practice room podium this week, and had to coach from the press box coaches’ 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. Men, run it off tackle.”

“Bo, go with the fly pattern to McMurtry.”

“Gotcha. Men, run it off tackle.”

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 Diddley. But he knows how to stuff it up your gut. And his team is still atop the heap in the Big Ten race, and still No. 5 in the country.

Paint it blue.

And what of Michigan State? The Spartans now have lost to three of the top five teams in the country. And it is of no solace. People expected a tougher performance this Saturday by the Spartans, considering how well they played against Notre Dame and Miami (Fla.). But give credit to the Wolverines defense. It stopped the likes of Ezor and Enos in enemy territory, and the offensive line opened holes the size of moving vans. Percy Snow, the all-world linebacker for Michigan State, was not a factor. And that takes some doing.

“We got to get it in from the 1-yard line,” said a disappointed Perles, whose face seemed carved in granite after this one. “And we can’t have a field goal blocked. And we can’t miss a field goal . . .”

And they can’t throw interceptions and they can’t take dumb penalties and they can’t do anything about it now. They made too many mistakes Saturday, and their comeback was a little too late. This is a good MSU team, but Saturday’s loss will haunt it for weeks. No. Check that. All year. There is nothing worse than death by Wolverine in East Lansing.

Nothing.

“People say we’re a good team,” said Harlon Barnett, the MSU safety, “but I’m getting tired of losing. Maybe we need more luck.”

Or something. Before the final quarter, a band of Michigan State crazies ran on the field and 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: Detroit Free Press Leroy Hoard breaks through to score Michigan’s touchdown in its 10-7 victory over Michigan State in East Lansing on Saturday. 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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