Wojo: Wolverines stomp Spartans, put stamp back on rivalry
East Lansing — If you wondered whether Michigan took this rivalry seriously enough, wonder no more. If you questioned whether the Wolverines could get riled up to win this type of fistfight game, question no more.
On a wet, chilly day, the rivalry got as heated as ever, and frankly, it was the forceful step the Wolverines needed to take. They stomped on Michigan State all game long, and for pointed measure, stomped on the Spartan midfield logo before and afterward. The 21-7 final score Saturday doesn’t accurately define how dominant the Wolverines were, and how badly they wanted to show it.
By the time it was over, Chase Winovich was revisiting the “little brother” angle, Jim Harbaugh was calling the Spartans “bush league” and Mark Dantonio was calling “BS” on Harbaugh’s comments. It was a throwback for the Wolverines and a throwaway for the Spartans. Their offense already wracked by injury, they lost their best player, Felton Davis III, to an Achilles injury and were completely smothered by Michigan’s marauding defense.
Harbaugh is deep into his fourth season, but this might be his most-impactful game yet, with the type of team he was expected to mold. Physical, feisty, angry. It was as if Michigan (7-1, 5-0 Big Ten) stole all those chips the Spartans (4-3, 2-2) proudly wear and beat ’em over the head with them.
The Wolverines piled up an astonishing 395-94 advantage in total yards and held Michigan State to 0-for-12 on third-down conversions. Brian Lewerke had a hideous 5-for-25 performance, and later said he was playing with an ailing right shoulder. The Wolverines showed no mercy, and weren’t stymied by a one-hour-and-15-minute weather delay. They pounded away against Michigan State’s top-rated run defense, while Shea Patterson made big plays when needed, and the program snapped an 0-17 record against ranked teams on the road since 2006.
“Every week it seems that people find reasons to critique us or talk about why we don’t deserve to be a top-ranked team,” said Karan Higdon, who rushed for 144 yards. “Last week it was we don’t show up in big games. This week it’s Michigan State has the No. 1 defense, blah blah blah. …We knew when the whistle blew, we were going to let it all out, all our frustration, all the personal things we felt about this game, we were going to let it out. We came here, they were talking trash. When the whistle blew, there was nothing they could do.”
Well, well, at least everyone can stop play-acting now, right? Both Dantonio and Harbaugh spoke this week about the respectful nature of the rivalry. Blah blah blah.
The Wolverines have spent years trying to act as if the Spartans were a pesky foe, not a fearsome rival worthy of their undivided attention. I’d say the final remnants of that stance are gone. Michigan State got their attention with eight victories in the past 10 games, and Michigan just got the Spartans’ attention with an emphatic response.
“Our guys didn’t blink, they didn’t come here to back down or get intimidated by anybody,” Harbaugh said. “They never have in this game. Guys did what they had to do.”
Settling old scores
Some will be annoyed by the antics, but let’s not get overly sensitive and pretend it was abnormal behavior in an in-state rivalry. And let’s not pretend you couldn’t see it simmering for years. If the competitive fervor was dampened for a while, it’s fully lit now.
It was lit two hours before the game, when a few Michigan players — Devin Bush, Lawrence Marshall, Lavert Hill — were warming up at the time they were scheduled to be on the field, 10 a.m. At that point, Michigan State’s team came marching out of the tunnel, locked in arms for its traditional walk. They were dressed in gray sweats and helmets, and they were not stopping to avoid the Michigan players.
Harbaugh didn’t see the incident but was given details, and said Marshall got “clotheslined” by the Spartans, but that’s probably overstating it. Bush also wouldn’t step aside and pushed his way through. Hill had his headphones knocked off as the Spartans passed.
“I ain’t about to back down from anybody,” Hill said. “They did what they tried to do and that was it. They saw us right there, they weren’t gonna stop and move, and we weren’t gonna stop and move. We said we’re just gonna settle this on the field.”
They settled it all right, and sound as determined as ever to settle old scores. Harbaugh improved to 2-5 against Michigan State and Ohio State, and more important, Michigan remains in the hunt for a playoff berth, with a bye followed by a home game against Penn State.
But that’s not what people will be talking about for at least a year, until the teams meet next Nov. 16 in Ann Arbor. They’ll be talking about the day Michigan dropped its pretense and Michigan State dropped its sneer (for now).
Nobody plays the sneer game better than Dantonio, so it’s plausible there was a purpose to the timing of the pregame march. Or it could simply be the Spartans were a few minutes late to the field and weren’t looking for a confrontation. Whatever it was, it so angered Bush, he had to be restrained, then dug his cleats into the Spartan logo, scraping up the white paint. That video instantly gets inducted into the Rivalry Lore, along with Harbaugh’s response to the Spartans’ march.
“Total bush league, and apparently Coach Dantonio was five yards behind them, all smiling,” Harbaugh said. “Bush league, that’s my impression of it.”
Dantonio might have called it a different kind of “Bush league,” and he wasn’t buying the rest.
“That’s BS,” Dantonio said. “You guys get your cameras out. It’s all on Fox. I’m not gonna go into that.”
Sure enough it’s all on Fox and, oops, video indeed shows Dantonio walking about five yards behind his team, an apparent smirk on his face, as the mostly verbal confrontation began. I’m sure more grainy images will emerge, and we’ll all waste time debating who’s most at fault.
No, it wasn’t a good look when Bush dug into the logo, although it was authentic.
“It was pure emotion,” Bush said. “I did what I did, I can’t take it back.”
It also wasn’t a good look when both teams kept committing unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, with the Wolverines guilty more often. But anyone upset they celebrated afterward by jumping up and down on the Spartan logo while lifting the Paul Bunyan Trophy is being a bit hysterical. Or they don’t recall how wildly the Spartans have celebrated in Michigan Stadium over the years, images the Wolverines used as motivation.
To the victors go the spoils, and the Spartans had gotten spoiled. It’s part of any rivalry, as long as no one gets hurt and slurs don’t fly. The “little brother” jab may be old, and it certainly hasn’t helped the Wolverines since Mike Hart uttered it 11 years ago, but it doesn’t qualify as a crime against humanity. Not any more than LJ Scott’s reference to Michigan before the season as “little sister.”
“We knew they couldn’t hang with us,” Winovich said on the field after the game. “We did what we had to do. Sometimes your little brother starts acting up, and you just gotta put them in place. They tried, they gave it their best, it just wasn’t enough.”
Not nearly enough, with Michigan State’s only touchdown coming on a trick play after Michigan fumbled on its own 7. But the Wolverines didn’t crumble, as they have before in this rivalry. Patterson fired a perfect 79-yard touchdown pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 14-7 lead late in the third quarter, and it was essentially over.
For all the talk about trenches and trash talk, these games often are decided on one or two big plays by the quarterbacks, and Michigan had the huge advantage this time. The Wolverines didn’t open up the offense partly because they knew they could win with defense, and they compiled an obscene time-of-possession (41 minutes to 19) while forcing 11 punts.
They played like a team that knew its opponent was wounded, and they didn’t let up. Harbaugh said this game was “circled for a long time,” and it looked like it. It looked like Michigan was sick of hearing it, and wasn’t bashful about showing it. On a dominating, emotional day, it looked like this rivalry just took another deliciously nasty turn.