Wojo: No blowout, but UM did what it desperately had to do

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan tight end Tyrone Wheatley, left, and running back De'Veon Smith celebrate Smith's second quarter touchdown.

East Lansing — It wasn’t the demolition many predicted, and didn’t leave the wreckage many craved. But going forward, that’s not really the point. The Wolverines did what was absolutely necessary, and took their most important step yet under Jim Harbaugh.

They beat the Spartans, and despite the fans’ bloodlust, it wasn’t mandatory they beat ’em up. Before Michigan’s rise could be ratified — and Michigan State’s fall could be confirmed — the Wolverines had to beat a rival, any rival, especially this rival. They did it differently, with big-play poise from quarterback Wilton Speight, in a strange 32-23 victory Saturday.

So the Wolverines and their faithful finally can breathe a little easier, although not for long. The Spartans poked holes in the top-ranked defense and reminded us what makes a rivalry. If Michigan State had anything left in a dismal season, this was the day it would appear.

The Wolverines got dented a bit, but also got what they needed, after seven losses in eight meetings, after last year’s historic muffed-punt finish. They got a physical road test and a hint of what it takes to go undefeated. And they got vengeance, if not vicious vengeance. No. 2 Michigan is 8-0 and still on track for the showdown with Ohio State and a possible playoff berth. Michigan State (2-6) is in full collapse with six straight losses, its longest skid since 1982.

So you’ll understand if the Wolverines weren’t biting on any suggestions the victory was less than fulfilling. Huge sections of visiting Michigan fans where there to bear witness, and the 24-point spread suggested they’d get to frolic.

Speight, who was 16-for-25 for 244 yards — 165 to the acrobatic Amara Darboh — shrugged off the margin saying, “the score seemed a little closer than it was.”

Maybe it did. And maybe it will prove useful down the stretch.

“We were tested in all phases and we were sure that was going to be the case,” Harbaugh said. “Our guys made the plays throughout the ballgame really, from start to finish. It was a good, tight game. Good for our guys to get tested that way and good for them to come through.”

First on the board

And numbingly repetitive that this year’s Spartan team didn’t come through. It has scored first in all six of its losses, and did again with a punishing first drive, led by LJ Scott, for a 7-0 lead.

But if Mark Dantonio had some sort of psychological hold on Michigan, he let it slip. He juggled quarterbacks haphazardly, although some of it was prompted by injuries, and he probably should stick with Brian Lewerke now. The Spartans had their chances to get back in it after trailing 27-10 at the half, but Dantonio and offensive coordinator Dave Warner insisted on playing hardball against Michigan’s staunch defense.

Early in the third quarter, Scott inexplicably ran four consecutive times inside the Michigan 3 and was stuffed each time. Scott was pounding much of the day, finishing with 139 rushing yards, and maybe that duped the Spartans into thinking they could do what they do. But as this season is proving, when you can’t consistently do what you do, you have to try something else. They also were stuffed on fourth-and-1 from Michigan’s 38 early in the game.

“My thinking is that we have to get the inches, obviously I was wrong,” Dantonio said. ‘Ever since 2007, that's what we do. But that was my decision and I'll take the heat for it.”

Dantonio’s staff will get some heat for this confounding collapse, but the Spartans showed some spirit and skill. The Wolverines showed more — more talent, more experience, more incentive.

No rewind

The Wolverines dominated the first half, and just to make sure there was no repeat of last year’s fiasco, they didn’t punt until 9:13 remained in the game. Harbaugh wasn’t holding back, lining up Jabrill Peppers several times at quarterback, and Peppers scored their first touchdown on a 3-yard run.

He finished with seven tackles, two for loss, and even got to wrap up the game with a sprint to the end zone for two points, after Michigan State fumbled a bizarre two-point attempt with one second left. Was Dantonio curiously trying to make the score more respectable at 30-25? Probably. Did it give the Wolverines a celebratory final flourish? It sure did.

And make no mistake, the Wolverines relished this. Several players raced to the Spartans’ sideline at the end to grab the Paul Bunyan Trophy, only to discover it already was sent to their locker room. They took pictures with big Paul, and could finally admit the game meant a bit more.

“I don’t have to explain the magnitude of the game to you guys,” Peppers said. “We haven’t won here since ’07. Some games are bigger than others. It’s definitely a sense of relief.”

And after sauntering through most of their first seven contests, perhaps it provided a sense of renewed purpose.

“We needed this little wake-up call,” Peppers said. “Nothing too major, we got a little lax. We still got the victory.”

It’s funny how these rivalry games work. Rivals push each other, especially when they get a chance to push each other around. Michigan had its chance Saturday, but the way it has lost three straight in the series, we should’ve figured it’d be tighter than expected.

Standout cornerback Jourdan Lewis and the defense had some rough patches, and if the Spartans’ Tyler O’Connor or Lewerke were more adept passers, this would’ve gone right to the end. For all their smiles, the Wolverines recognize the work ahead.

“We took care of business, even though we thought we played a little bit sloppy, probably one of our worst games,” Lewis said. “We just took our foot off the pedal, that’s what happened. We stopped concentrating, and we made it closer than it should have been.”

Or the Spartans made it closer because this was the only salvageable thing left in their season, and they fought for it.

The psychology doesn’t really matter now.

Yes, Michigan’s defense got dinged, really for the first time, allowing 217 rushing yards. But in key situations, Speight made huge throws, and that’s the most-important development. When he threw one bad interception, the defense stood firm on those four fateful runs by Scott.

Every team faces these bounce-back situations, and the Spartans have been running into them all season. The Wolverines ran into a staggering one in last year’s loss, and Harbaugh declared then they’d put “steel in their spine.” I’m not sure if that surgery is allowed, but I do know they’re 13-1 since.

If the rivalry is flipping back around with Harbaugh here, and it’s trending that way, it couldn’t happen unless this happened. Of all the Wolverines’ victories the past two seasons, this is the one they desperately had to have, and it really didn’t matter how it looked.