Remember the third quarter?
Michigan State scored off a trick play, after a turnover, tying a game in which it had been outplayed and it was like every iteration of this rivalry amalgamated into a five-minute span. It felt like you knew exactly how the rest of this thing was going to go, because we had seen this movie before.
When Michigan went three-and-out on the ensuing drive, Khari Willis dropping a surefire interception, it seemed like a prelude. Instead, it was another break in a game full of them, ending in a narrative-changing 21-7 victory.
If some of those breaks go a little differently — if the Spartans come down with a first quarter tipped ball instead of Nico Collins, if they do the same in the third quarter instead of Zach Gentry, if Willis doesn’t drop that pick — this might be a column about how the Wolverines still can’t get over the hump. Those plays have gone Michigan State’s way of late in this rivalry. And being able to win that weird, intangible element — clearing the “everything always goes against us” hurdle — might say more about Michigan than anything else it has done.
“Our team never blinked the entire time,” Jim Harbaugh told reporters. “They played hard, they played smart. From the pregame shenanigans, there was no backing down today by our guys. From then on.”
[After THE JUMP: A column]
The Wolverines kept the Spartans to 94 yards. Brian Lewerke averaged all of 2.64 yards per attempt. The weather and trick plays and Mark Dantonio juju that was the talk of Schembechler Hall this week — all it did was keep the score close.
This may not have been the best win of the Harbaugh Era, but it was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most important. It stops those stats — no wins against a ranked team on the road since 2006, 1-5 in rivalry games since Harbaugh’s arrival — from circulating, and it proves Michigan can win one of those games that Michigan has gained a reputation for losing just because.
Last year’s game was a textbook example. A deluge of rain, breaks going the wrong way, a loss to a team less talented on paper that celebrated on the Wolverines’ field. This week, Michigan’s coaching staff put pictures of that scene all over the building, a not-so-subtle reminder of what happens when you don’t play up to the moment.
“We were reminded of that every single day this week,” Tyree Kinnel said.
On Saturday, the Wolverines did play up to the moment. Shea Patterson and Donovan Peoples-Jones broke through the slog of turnovers and three-and-outs late in the third quarter, connecting on a 79-yard rainbow, five-star to five-star. And with that, the mental stumbling block on which Michigan had fallen so many times had been cleared.
“When we get that moment to break through, just, we’re not gonna give it back,” Patterson said. “Donovan in 1-on-1 coverage, good luck with that. Just threw it up to him, he made a hell of a play after the catch.”
On fourth-and-2 at the Michigan State 41 the next drive, Harbaugh went to zone read and Patterson kept the ball, fooling even the cameraman, scampering for 11 yards and a crucial first down. After a first half of conservative play-calling on both sides, the Wolverines gaining field position and coming up short, this was a welcome reprieve. And it paid off.
Ben Mason’s ensuing five-yard touchdown all but put the game away. Michigan’s defense finished the job. Cue the celebration, right on the Spartans’ logo.
“That’s what we wanted to do,” Kinnel said. “Coach gave us the clear, if we win this game, with the trophy and make the field our field. That’s what they did to us last year. It felt good doing that.”
A wholesale change in attitude — towards this game and towards its position in the college football zeitgeist — has been apparent with the Wolverines since Chase Winovich declared a revenge tour after beating Wisconsin. This is not Brady Hoke’s team, apologizing for planting a stake at midfield. This is a team that plans its celebration on Michigan State’s logo in advance.
This is not a team trying to get in the discussion for the playoff. It is a team that is in the discussion, and wants you to know that it is in the discussion.
“Every week it seems that people with the playoff rankings and whatever the case may be find a reason to critique us,” Higdon said. “Or talk about why we don’t deserve to be a top-ranked team. Last week it was, we don’t show up in big games. This week it was, Michigan State got the number-one run defense. Blah, blah, blah. We showed up, we did our job. That’s all that matters.”
Later, he added: “We knew they didn’t want to play us.”
Neither should anyone else.