Sunday, October 30, 2016

Michigan 32, Michigan State 23: Home on the road

What tells the story of college football better than colors and sound?

The maize contingent in the crowd at Spartan Stadium stuck out more than usual on Saturday. Twice, a very clear and audible doooommmm rang out when Michigan's Eddie McDoom carried the ball, first for 20 yards and later for 33.

You can often discern the state of a program by how many fans it is able to attract to a road venue. Even the hardiest fan base is not likely to travel when defeat is a foregone conclusion.

In the days of Rodriguez and Hoke, scarlet-clad fans flooded the Big House, providing the audio-visual signpost declaring Michigan's obvious inferiority to the Ohio State Buckeyes. Similarly, the Michigan State Spartans have filled the Big House in recent years, ringing the autumn air with chants of "Go Green, Go White."

On Saturday, things were different, both on the field and in the stands. I'm not sure exactly how many Michigan fans were there, but it had to have been the largest contingent in East Lansing in quite some time. The showing was in stark contrast to, for example, the 2008 Ohio State game (one I attended, for some reason). The Michigan contingent for that game was infinitesimal, a sign of the season and the times.

This time, Michigan waltzed into a road game against a rival with a No. 2 ranking and last season's catastrophic finish on its mind -- once the bullied, now the bully.

Even after the Spartans shocked the Wolverines with a 12-play, 75-yard odyssey of a touchdown drive to start the game, Michigan responded like a team fully in possession of its bearings. The Wolverines cut through the Spartans defense like a speedy defenseman carrying the puck end to end, maneuvering around opponents in the neutral zone as if they weren't even there, like green-and-white pylons.

DeVeon Smith for 20. Devin Asiasi for 15. McDoom for 20. Amara Darboh for 8. Smith for 7. Then, the coda, Jabrill Peppers cruising to the pylon to tie it.

The Spartans never led again, as Michigan began to slowly exert itself over the less talented opponent. When the Spartans dared to air it out -- according to Mark Dantonio, the call was actually a screen pass -- Tyler O'Connor tossed a ball into the waiting hands of Jourdan Lewis. Michigan promptly seized on the error, adding three points to go up 27-10 at the half.

The box score belies the nature of this contest. Outside of the brief collar-tugging stretch following Michigan State's impressive opening drive, it never felt as if the Wolverines were in real danger. And, unlike last year when the Wolverines led by two scores late, Michigan State didn't have Connor Cook to bring them back. This time, Michigan scored five second-half points, and it was fine.

Take, for example, the start of the second half. Michigan drove to MSU's side of the field, but a Wilton Speight interception gave the Spartans a brief sense of hope. MSU marched down to the Michigan 8, after which they bashed their heads into a wall seven times.

Earlier in the game, MSU failed to convert a fourth-and-1 from the Michigan 38. Times they are a-changin'.

Michigan didn't play its A game, but it didn't even need to. Down 30-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Spartans had a first and goal from the Michigan 8-yard line. Instead of methodically pounding the Wolverines into submission like the Spartans have done so many times before, the Spartans lost 9 yards, then Damion Terry tossed two incomplete passes before Dantonio opted for a 34-yard field goal, which Michael Geiger missed.

Sure, fourth and goal from the 17 is not exactly a promising venture, but a field goal gets you from three scores down to ... three scores down. The field goal attempt was thus pushed off line by a subtle mathematical breeze.

Even late, when the Spartans scored to cut the lead to 30-23, they opted to go for two, which promptly offered up the most pleasing conclusion for Michigan fans: Peppers scooping up the ball and jetting the length of the field to add two final points to Michigan's total.

Michigan fans were hoping for a more lopsided result, and they were certainly justified in expecting one. The Wolverines boasted all the gaudy statistical advantages, while the Spartans entered with a 2-5 record, a listless passing game and a defense bearing no resemblance to the stalwart groups of previous Dantonio teams.

Despite all that, the Spartans racked up 401 yards of offense, 23 first downs, 23 points and 5.2 yards per carry. They brought what they could -- unfortunately for Michigan State, it was not nearly enough.

As for Michigan, the win marked their first against Michigan State since 2012, and just the third in 10 tries against Dantonio. MSU fans will still say Michigan is 3-7 in their last 10 meetings against the Spartans -- and that's fine. It is a fact, after all.

But the past can be a sad place to live, as Michigan fans know. The past is fixed, and what has happened has happened. Nothing changes recent results -- in the past decade, Michigan has faltered, over and over and over again.

What does change, though, is the here and now, and in turn, the future. One team is ascending while the other descends. Will Michigan State continue to fall? That remains to be seen. It's hard to believe a Dantonio-led program will continue to be this bad, especially a year removed from a playoff appearance. It's also fair to say that the Spartans benefited from Michigan's post-Carr decline.

Well, it appears the era of benefits has come to end. That account has closed. The windows are boarded shut and the tellers have gone home.

On Saturday, Michigan won a game reminiscent of some box-score close Ohio State victories over undermanned Michigan teams (2009 and 2013 come to mind). While a total blowout may have been more satisfying for Michigan fans -- not unlike the 2002 Michigan-Michigan State game -- there's something to be said for a "close" game, one in which Michigan didn't play nearly its best and still emerged without suffering a heart-pounding final moment, a position of true danger, trouble with the snap.

This time, Michigan State fans chanted "f--- Jim Harbaugh" as the Spartans went out to attempt a meaningless two-point conversion.

Whether you believe in some sort of cosmic justice or not -- and, if you do, whether you believe such a thing can be applied to the ultimately meaningless world of sports -- the idea reveals itself from time to time, like a rare bird casually strutting into your field of vision before equally casually disappearing from view.

"[O'Connor] pitches it backwards and it's scooped up and there goes Jabrill Peppers ..." 

Peppers picked up O'Connor's wayward option pitch around the MSU 13-yard line -- O'Connor and his fellow teammates did not even bother to give chase, and justifiably so. The cause was lost.

Michigan's No. 5 sprinted unabated for two, crossing the goal line like a sprinter going through the finish line tape.

"Dantonio hates it," Brock Huard said. "That's the worst thing that could possibly happen."

I suppose, in the end, we will see about that.

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