Wojo: Wolverines back in charge, Dantonio's Spartans back in turmoil

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The Wolverines played like they’d waited a long time for this day — brutally physical, dynamic, fearless. And the Spartans played like they knew it was coming — scattered, reckless, shaken.

This was the rivalry come full circle, more than a decade later. Michigan has bulled its way back to the top of the state, and it’s Michigan State’s turn to recoil, reevaluate, regroup. This was a thumping with deep intentions and implications, the type of rout that can shake programs and legacies.

Michigan blasted the Spartans 44-10 Saturday, and did it with merciless impunity, just as Michigan State had done in several of the previous 12 meetings under Mark Dantonio. Now, including the Wolverines’ 45-14 rout of Notre Dame three weeks ago, Jim Harbaugh appears to have his program up and humming at 8-2, even as the biggest test still looms. It’s Ohio State in two weeks, with a dicey trap in between at Indiana.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, left, and Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh shake hands after the Wolverines defeated the Spartans, 44-10, Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

As for Dantonio, you get the sense his work is nearly done here, the circle figuratively complete. Will he be back next season? That will be hotly debated as the cries for his job grow. It may still be his choice, although even that could slip away. Truthfully, it’s unclear why he would want to dive back into what looks like a major rebuild, as it was when he arrived in 2007.

The Spartans have completely collapsed, partly under the weight of injuries, also under a cloud of stubbornness. They’ve lost five straight, haven’t won a game since Sept. 28, and at 4-6 aren’t yet bowl eligible. In the past four seasons, Dantonio is 24-24, and the one asset he always clutched — control over Michigan — is gone, at least for now, maybe for a while.

Harbaugh wouldn’t say it, but this had to be one of the most satisfying victories in his five seasons here. Two of his bitterest defeats came against Michigan State in the Big House. Any doubts about his program have centered around struggles against Michigan State and Ohio State. Now he’s 3-2 against the Spartans, and the Wolverines pounded them so emphatically, the reverberations are real.

Armed ace

Shea Patterson was brilliant, just as Harbaugh insisted he’d be when others were picking apart his quarterback. The Wolverines unleashed all their terrific receivers, just as coordinator Josh Gattis claimed they could. Granted, they did it against a battered Michigan State defense, and injuries will be a defense for Dantonio. It would have more merit if this beating wasn’t so thorough, and the Spartans weren’t so undisciplined and disjointed.

There were penalties galore for both teams, but the Spartans committed several drive-crushing personal fouls, and Jacub Panasiuk was ejected for a ridiculous late hit on Patterson. 

“I’m very happy, very pleased with the way our players played, our coaches coached,” Harbaugh said. “To have a game where so many players played well, it’s 10 out of 10. I thought our team played really disciplined, and also had fun, playing with a light heart.”

Light and loose, and for most of the day, wide open in the Spartans’ secondary. Patterson threw for a career-high 384 yards and completed a staggering 14 passes for 15-plus yards. Ronnie Bell had 150 yards receiving, and Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins, Nick Eubanks and freshman Cornelius Johnson all had touchdown catches.

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Peoples-Jones’ 18-yarder early in the third quarter was the big one, flipping a relatively tight 17-7 halftime score to 24-7. After he scored, he struck his Paul Bunyan pose, just as he did in the 21-7 victory last year in East Lansing. The big ol’ ugly trophy remains in Ann Arbor, and so does the swagger. As badly as Michigan State beat its rival during an eight-year stretch, winning seven, the Wolverines felt entitled to a payback, and they delivered in full.

Leading 37-10, Harbaugh kept most of his starters in, and Patterson executed a fake run and threw to Johnson, a freshman, for a 39-yard touchdown with 2:33 left. Patterson admitted the play was designed to be a pass — “Yeah, we wanted to go out here and score as many points as we could” — and no apologies were necessary.

You know who, deep down, might have respected that punctuation pile-on? Perhaps Dantonio himself. At the height of Michigan State’s power in 2014, the Spartans punched in a touchdown with 28 seconds left to complete a 35-11 rout of Michigan. The Wolverines had made the mistake of firing a railroad spike into the Spartan Stadium turf before the game, and a half-seething, half-smirking Dantonio afterward declared, “It just felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point."

That probably explains why the Spartans had little to say in response to this score. They couldn’t gripe about something they’ve done themselves, and Dantonio wasn’t in a combative mood anyhow.

Green galoshes

“How strong are you?” Dantonio asked rhetorically. “Can you weather storms? If you can't weather storms, then this may not be the best situation to put yourself in. So we’ve weathered the storm. That's whether you're a leader on this football team internally, or collectively as a coaching staff or as the head football coach, so I'll weather the storm.”

Dantonio’s confidence is understandable. He reignited a moribund rivalry and reinvigorated his own fan base, going 8-5 against Michigan. When he arrived, the Wolverines were in the midst of a six-game winning streak in the series, launched by a 49-3 victory in 2002. That was the largest margin in the rivalry in 55 years, nearly matched on Saturday. Two days after that blasting, Michigan State fired coach Bobby Williams.

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Dantonio deserves better than a sudden, stinging fate. But this game had an especially emphatic feel to it, right down to the old chants of “Little Brother,” followed by the emotional celebration by players on the field.

Oh yeah, this meant a lot, way more than it used to mean to the Wolverines, another sign of the juicy rancor Dantonio stirred. The rivalry always had its share of chippy and chirpy play, and this was one of the nastier examples. This time, after four losses in five games to Michigan State in the Big House, the Wolverines got the last laugh, and the Spartans made the last gaffe.

“I feel like we were way more classy then them,” safety Josh Metellus said. “They tried to take it to a level that wasn’t playing football. We played football, I don’t know what they do over there. We made a statement today, we were playing real physical, to the point where we were playing too physical and they tried to do something after the play when we weren’t looking.”

And what did Metellus have to say to the Spartans as they left the field?

“I was telling them to go home,” he said. “Time for them to leave, they didn’t deserve to be in our stadium. I was just trying to wave them goodbye.”

It took much more over the years than a wave to make the Spartans go away, and it’s unclear if they’ll stay away for long, depending on Dantonio’s future. But for the Wolverines, this was a cathartic day, a chance to expel pent-up frustrations, and in the punishing process, send all the heavy doubt spinning the other way.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski