John Niyo and Matt Charboneau discuss Michigan State's win over Michigan. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Never a doubt, right?
Not exactly. But for Michigan State, a program that for much of the last year seemed to have lost its way, there was something comfortably familiar about the way Saturday’s rivalry showdown with Michigan ended.
And from the last-minute punt to the mad scramble on the final play, an ugly end quickly turned to a beautiful sight for the visitors in white, as senior co-captain Chris Frey raced over to grab the Paul Bunyan Trophy after Michigan’s last-gasp heave came up empty.
“I started to go celebrate, and then I said, ‘All right, I need to get Paul,’” Frey said, grinning through a face smeared with eye black. “Gave him a kiss and said ‘Welcome back.’”
He’s back, all right. And so is Michigan State, at least by this critical measure, as the Spartans beat the Wolverines for the eighth time in the last 10 years and the second time in a row in Michigan Stadium.
Saturday’s rain-soaked, 14-10 victory wasn’t necessarily worth framing. Michigan State finished with 11 punts and 11 penalties and just two first downs in eight second-half possessions. But it also won the turnover battle, 5-0, on a night everyone figured that battle would win the war. And when linebacker Joe Bachie got his hand on John O’Korn’s final pass near the goal line, knocking it to the soggy turf in the south end zone, “I looked up and saw the clock at :00 and … it’s a feeling you can’t explain,” Bachie said.
But it’s one they all know now, not just the upperclassmen. Now the true freshmen experiencing the rivalry for the first time know the feeling, too. And more than a dozen first- and second-year starters playing their first game at the Big House, in front of a crowd of 112,432, know what their head coach meant when he told them afterward, “You will never, ever have a bus ride home like this one.”
Mark Dantonio has been here and done this before, of course. And when someone asked him Saturday night if it bothered him that so many people seem to forget that, he just smiled. Michigan fans might call it a smirk. But when you win, it doesn’t much matter what the other side thinks.
“I don’t know,” Dantonio said. “We’ve done it eight times. We’ve done it eight times. So I don’t know why there’s a lot of doubt.”
That said, even he had to admit this one felt bigger. (“It’s up there,” Dantonio said, as he held his right hand above his head. “Way up there.”) Maybe bigger than all the rest, in some respects, given how far the Spartans had fallen, with a disastrous 3-9 finish in 2016 followed by an offseason full of ugly headlines.
‘Keep your head up’
But if all that shook the program to its core, it also forced Dantonio and Co. to get back to some of those core values he’d stressed over the last decade as he turned the Spartans into a Big Ten powerhouse.
“Obviously, we needed to bounce back,” he said. “And we made a commitment to do that as a football team and as a program, way back in the spring.”
But to bounce back they needed to bond together, because they all admit those family ties had frayed last season, as the injuries piled up and the losses mounted and the chemistry boiled over into a mess.
“Our biggest thing coming into this season was restoring the attitude that this program used to have,” said center Brian Allen, the Spartans’ other senior co-captain. “And we haven’t played our best football yet. But you see guys playing to the whistle, you see guys finishing, you see guys cheering each other on.”
And Saturday night, when you saw Laress Nelson, a true freshman who was the final addition to last winter’s recruiting class, muff a punt and force the Spartans to start a drive at their own 2-yard line early in the third quarter, you saw something else.
“You’ve got five guys out there telling him, ‘Hey, man, no one cares. Keep your head up,’ ” Allen said. “Guys made mistakes all night and we just kept picking each other up. …
“We’re just so much closer, so much more of a team. It’s just that attitude, that we’re not going to accept losing and we’re going to keep going. And it’s nice to see that in action. We talked about it from (last) November on. But now we’re doing it.”
They had to do it again and again Saturday, because even when they pounced on Michigan’s miscues, they often made some of their own. They committed foolish penalties to turn a couple of those O’Korn interceptions into de facto punts. And a personal foul on Frey on the first play of Michigan’s final, desperate drive gave the Wolverines the ball at midfield and left Dantonio fuming as he stalked the sideline.
“We made some mistakes there that drive you crazy,” he said. “But, hey, we survived ’em.”
Eyes to the skies
They survived the elements, too, as they grabbed an early lead — credit offensive coordinator Dave Warner for some terrific play-calling in the first half — and then weathered the storm. Brian Lewerke laughed after the game as he recounted his father’s advice earlier in the day, reminding him to make the most of his first-half opportunities before the expected rainstorm around 10 p.m.
“So I’m glad we did that,” said Lewerke, who scored the game’s first touchdown with a 14-yard run and threw for the second on a perfectly-executed slip screen to Madre London midway through the second quarter.
After halftime, they were happy to try to run out the clock, though don’t try telling Dantonio they played it conservative.
“No,” he interrupted, “we played smart with the weather.”
Dantonio shook his head as he took note of Michigan’s varied offensive looks. By his count, the Wolverines showed 40 different formations on their 40 first-half plays. Allen, likewise, talked about Michigan’s top-ranked defense, a unit that brings “so many blitzes that 9,000 different things can happen in a matter of 2 seconds.”
And when you consider he’s flanked on that Michigan State offensive line by a true freshman, a redshirt freshman and a pair of sophomores, well, sometimes all you can do is shrug, as Allen did trying to explain what they’d all just been through.
It’s a game few would’ve given them a chance to win before the season. And considering they were double-digit underdogs Saturday, Allen noted that hadn’t really changed. Forget two months ago.
“Yesterday, or this morning, no one gave us a chance to win the game but us,” he said.
But with the clock nearing midnight Saturday, the Spartans had all the company needed as they boarded the bus, headed home to East Lansing.
“The second half wasn’t pretty, but that really doesn’t matter right now,” Allen said. “It’s just a great feeling, knowing that we beat those guys. And Paul Bunyan’s coming home.”