Matt Charboneau, Angelique Chengelis and Bob Wojnowski discuss Saturday's Michigan-Michigan State game. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Early in the second half, the Wolverines never flinched.
Not after Michigan fumbled deep in its territory, eventually giving up a tying touchdown, as things were starting to feel like one of those crazy Michigan-Michigan State games with weird weather on top of everything else.
This game against the Wolverines’ in-state rival, which had won eight of the last 10 in the series, has been a focal point since last year. Photos of Michigan State players celebrating the victory over Michigan last season and carrying the Paul Bunyan Trophy around Michigan Stadium adorned the walls of Schembechler Hall, a constant reminder during the week of how miserable the Wolverines felt.
“Had this one circled for a long time, for a whole year,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the 21-7 victory over Michigan State on Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
A few days earlier at his Monday news conference, Harbaughb said there had been enough of the well-worn clichés that have defined the rivalry from players to fans — and constantly recycled by the media, and he would not feed that beast.
After the game, he tossed around “bush league” a few times to describe the heated exchange between Michigan State and Michigan players on the field during pregame warmups. This will be sure to come up again and again as the two teams prepare to meet each year and as the cliches and familiar storylines rev up.
UM's Karan Higdon talks after Saturday's victory over Michigan State. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
But Harbaugh spent most of his time praising quarterback Shea Patterson, who led the Wolverines to the win in his first Michigan-Michigan State start; running back Karan Higdon, who rushed for 144 yards against the nation’s top-rated run defense; and the defense, that held Michigan State to 94 yards, including 0-for-12 on third down.
When asked how his team responded after giving up the short-field touchdown to Michigan State after that turnover, Harbaugh said he had shared something motivating with the team.
“I came across a great quote this week, Alonzo Mourning, ‘Adversity introduces a man to himself,’" Harbaugh said. “Our guys didn’t blink. We got tough, smart, good guys. Came right back and answered.”
So it was actually Albert Einstein who said that, but this was reminiscent of the “forget it, he’s rolling” moment in the movie “Animal House.
Even after losing the season opener at Notre Dame, the players said they felt that could be a springboard game for them. They have gone unbeaten since and are now ranked No. 5 in both polls. The Wolverines are 7-1, 5-0 and sit atop the Big Ten East Division rankings as they head into an off weekend, before returning for the final third of the season. Michigan will next play No. 17 Penn State at home and after games against Rutgers and Indiana before facing No. 11 Ohio State, upset over the weekend by Purdue, in the regular-season finale.
Michigan safety Tyree Kinnel, who led the team Saturday with five tackles, including one for loss, was matter-of-fact when asked why the team didn’t begin to crumble as past teams had when faced with the turnover and quick Michigan State points.
“We’re a different team,” Kinnel said. “Completely different team.”
“We’re just better mentally. We’re stronger. We’re faster. We trust each other. We’re older. We’ve got more experience. It’s not a team like we were in the past.”
The Wolverines responded to the Notre Dame loss as they did to that turnover and game-tying touchdown. They took it in stride and moved on, saying they would improve.
Some might point to the win at Northwestern as the galvanizing moment when Michigan rebounded from a 17-point deficit to win, 20-17. But this win was different. Michigan had not won on the road against a ranked team since 2006 and was 0-17 in those matchups. Michigan State was ranked, but in the end, it went way beyond checking the box of getting a road win against a ranked opponent.
“We stayed quiet, stayed in our space,” Higdon said of the Wolverines’ demeanor all week. “We knew the way it was going to be when we got here. We just elevated our enthusiasm.”
During the lengthy weather delay, Higdon said the team relaxed and stayed loose.
“We knew they didn’t want to play us,” Higdon said of the Spartans. “They were tired, they were hurting and we knew it was going to be a pound-for-pound game and they weren’t going to be able to last with us.”
Late in the game after linebacker Devin Bush sacked backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi for an 11-yard loss in the Spartans’ final series, Bush gave the Michigan State sideline a long look.
“Felt good,” Bush said of the sack and stare. “Finish a game strong like we wanted to. Don’t leave anything out on the field.”
UM safety and co-captain Tyree Kinnel said this Michigan team is "better mentally" and "stronger, faster." Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
He echoed Higdon’s comment that this was a “statement game” and backed that up with the defensive stats that have pushed the Wolverines back up one spot to No. 1 nationally in total defense (220.0).
“It sends a message to other teams we ain’t coming to play,” Bush said. “We coming to handle business.”
That, it seems, is the Wolverines’ mantra.
They have goals, among them, the elusive Big Ten title that has not belonged to the program since 2004, and they intend to reach them.
“It started last week in a big game with Wisconsin and showing people we can win the big game in prime time,” Kinnel said. “And this week we got to prove we can beat the rivals and we did that this week too.
"We’re not out here to prove everyone wrong, but we’re out here to win and accomplish the goal.”