Henning: Michigan triumph confirms changing tide in rivalry
East Lansing – Two teams, two directions, and two very different football flight paths were confirmed Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
Michigan is 30,000 feet into the blue and still soars, unbeaten and bound for the stars eight games into the 2016 autumn after Coach Jim Harbaugh’s gang spanked Michigan State, 32-23, Saturday on a balmy afternoon in East Lansing.
The Spartans are crashing. The casualty count is now six consecutive defeats for a team that, it must be remembered, 10 months ago was getting ready for a national championship semifinal game in Dallas.
Give MSU a hand for opening strong and scoring the day’s first touchdown on a lovely first-possession drive. And for making things interesting in the fourth quarter as Brian Lewerke, the third quarterback Spartans coach Mark Dantonio put to work Saturday, tossed a TD pass to Monty Madaris.
A final TD pass with one second on the clock – from Tyler O’Connor, who had returned to spell the injured Lewerke, to Donnie Corley – made Saturday’s theater a tad more entertaining and shredded a point-spread that was well past 20 points entering Saturday.
And credit, perhaps, Michigan State for scoring more points than the land’s No. 1 defense might have been expected to yield against a MSU team Harbaugh and his crew so badly wanted to punish after MSU had won seven of the last eight, including last year’s exercise in disbelief when State pulled a James Bond-worthy escape on the game’s final play and won, 27-23, in Ann Arbor.
But otherwise hand this game to Michigan.
All of it. Right down to Jabrill Peppers pulling something of a reprise of 2016’s epic antics at Ann Arbor when, with a second on the clock, Peppers grabbed a fumble on a two-point Spartans attempt and zipped 97 yards for two points for Michigan and the final score.
The game, apart from the scoreboard’s message, had essentially been decided early.
Michigan and quarterback Wilton Speight ripped into the Spartans, cutting apart a sad secondary with particular zest, on big play after big play.
There was Speight flipping a downfield toss to Amara Darboh eight times for 165 yards.
There was Eddie McDoom lighting up the UM crowd – Maize and Blue were so much a part of Saturday’s throng at Spartan Stadium you wondered which campus was hosting – on a 33-yard reverse.
De’Veon Smith: 20 yards on a carry that was part of an 80-yard, eight-play drive that ended with Jabrill Peppers whizzing from his wildcat perch into the end zone to help tie the game early.
But it slowly, steadily became Michigan’s day.
Harbaugh had said for the past week that notions he and his team were going to re-stage the Texas Chainsaw Massacre at Spartan Stadium in retaliation for last year’s craziness were nonsense.
This is football, Harbaugh said. Big Ten football. Rivalry football. And all Michigan hoped to do was stick to a script that, ever more closely, could send UM into a showdown for the Big Ten championship and, quite possibly, a spot in the same college football final four in which the Spartans found themselves a long year ago. It was Michigan football Saturday as it’s been played since Harbaugh hit Ann Arbor 21 months ago.
No serious breakdowns. Minimal turnovers (Darien Hicks with an interception of a Speight pass). Solid on special teams, with nothing close to an accident on par with last year’s October surprise.
And there were the Spartans, getting pelted with the occasional yellow flag for interference that factored into lightning drives as Michigan took a halftime break, leading 27-10.
Michigan State’s performance Saturday was counter in too many ways to Michigan’s stagecraft.
The Spartans got a surprising push from their offensive line on their first, dreamy drive, which saw them cruise 75 yards in 12 plays that inhaled a stunning 7 minutes, 2 seconds.
The Spartans did it courtesy of what for them in 2016 classified as a new offensive wrinkle: They ran the ball. With their formerly push-cart offensive line banging holes. And with the sometimes-abandoned LJ Scott (head coach Mark Dantonio isn’t always a fan of Scott’s pass-blocking) romping for steady yardage that ended in five-yard TD run.
Michigan scooted for two quick TDs to jump ahead, 14-7, before the Spartans closed to 14-10 on a 52-yard Michael Geiger field goal with 9:29 ahead of the half.
But the Spartans got nothing through the air. Not against UM’s secondary, coupled with a Michigan pass rush that chased starting quarterback O’Connor and made life difficult, at least until late, for MSU backup quarterbacks, Damion Terry and Lewerke, who were Dantonio’s choices after O’Connor was yanked.
O’Connor’s exit was basically sealed when he treated UM to a field goal in the first half’s waning seconds.
On first and 10 from MSU’s 28, he fired a downfield pass when Dantonio had preferred a simple screen. The ball was snared by UM star corner Jourdan Lewis, and a 24-10 game turned to 27-10 as the teams headed for some Gatorade and a confab with their coaches on a 70-degree-plus afternoon.
Dantonio’s issues with his quarterbacks mirror MSU’s mysterious ways in most regions of a roster that Saturday was shown, again, to simply be inferior.
It hasn’t been this way of late. MSU had won seven of eight against its great pals from Ann Arbor as Saturday arrived and a crowd, all but expecting a mismatch, motored onto a campus filled with fallen leaves and with football stories so very different escorting two rivals.
The general themes haven’t changed. Michigan is unbeaten and has gotten reacquainted with its old for-the-ages glory.
The Spartans are slipping steadily. Quizzically.
Two personas were enhanced a bit Saturday. It’s time to celebrate in Ann Arbor an unblemished team that Saturday whipped its hated in-state enemy. It’s time in East Lansing to wonder how 2016 happened, and what these same two teams’ stories might be when they meet, in Ann Arbor, in 2017.