By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 20, 2012
Four minutes after the Brendan Gibbons kick that ended the misery, six minutes after Drew Dileo became the unlikely hero and four years after the loss that started it all, a puffy-eyed Taylor Lewan finally went searching for the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
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At long last, Michigan had beaten Michigan State, 12-10. But Lewan couldn’t find the prize on the sideline.
“I ran over there,” Lewan said. “This is my first time beating Michigan State, so I don’t know how that works.”
None of Lewan’s teammates knew how it worked either. None had ever beaten the Spartans. But Saturday, for the first time since 2007 — tied for the Spartans’ longest streak in series history — the Paul Bunyan Trophy was safe in Michigan’s locker room.
“Paul’s back,” said fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs.
“Where he needs to be at,” added senior quarterback Denard Robinson.
Four years of hurt and humiliation, futility and frustration, came to a head on Saturday. There were no iconic Denard Robinson dashes, no flashy touchdowns. Michigan beat Michigan State with a late fourth quarter field goal, one of four on the game. The Wolverines failed to score a single touchdown, but won the way it is supposed to in these games: with a suffocating defense sharpened with a physical edge four years in the making.
For four years, Michigan had relied on flash. It started with an exciting spread offense and culminated in a team that relied on Robinson’s magic. Each time, the magic failed against the Spartans’ might.
Not this year. This year, the Wolverines won with defense. This year, Michigan protected the ball. It wasn’t pretty this year, it wasn’t showy, but it worked in a grinding struggle of a game.
“We got the job done,” said Lewan, the redshirt junior tackle. “It wasn’t always beautiful.”
Brothers know each other well enough to eliminate the other’s strengths, and for four years, the Spartans had taken away Michigan’s strengths. They dared the Wolverines to win with someone other than Robinson. In the first half Saturday, both teams dared the other to find a new way to win.
For Michigan, that meant stifling the Spartans’ most potent offensive weapon, running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell, the big back with surprising speed and agility, couldn’t run, or leap, over defenders, in the open field because Michigan didn’t allow him in the open field. The Big Ten’s leading rusher finished with just 68 yards on 26 attempts.
Inside the tackles, Michigan matched Bell’s strength. Needing one yard on third down in Michigan territory in the second quarter, the 244-pound back couldn’t pick up the first down. Craig Roh’s penetration blew up Bell’s running lanes and funneled him into fifth-year senior linebacker Kenny Demens and redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon. The Spartans settled for a 38-yard field goal, their best scoring opportunity of the first half, but missed wide.
To counter, Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell attacked a mostly untested Michigan secondary, a unit that ranked third in the nation entering the game. Maxwell connected on a 45-yarder to wide receiver Bennie Fowler in the second quarter, and finished with 21-for-34 with 192 yards, a touchdown and an interception. That interception, though, would later prove costly.
To limit Michigan’s strength, the Spartans, baited the Michigan offense into throws or runs with its backs. Robinson was not a factor on the ground. He totaled 96 yards on 20 carries, but half of those yards came on one run. Michigan punted on that drive.
Yet an unlikely target emerged in Dileo. The junior receiver grabbed two third-down receptions — one a flashy diving catch — to extend a second-quarter drive that led to Michigan’s first field goal of the game. Later in the half, Dileo scampered 35 yards after a Robinson pass to set up a 48-yard field goal that put the Wolverines ahead 6-0 at the half.
On Michigan State’s first drive of the second half, Maxwell returned to the pass, only this time, he didn’t miss. Using short drops to stifle the Michigan pass rush, Maxwell passed short, long and mid-range, 5-for-5 total on the drive. After a nifty maneuver by receiver Tony Lippett to turn a broken trick play into a first-and-goal, Maxwell passed on play action for the score. Michigan State led 7-6.
Yet the Spartans’ reliance on Maxwell cost them. Maxwell overthrew an open receiver late in the third quarter, and fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs intercepted the pass. The turnover set up a Michigan field goal. The Wolverines retook the lead, 9-7, but Robinson missed a potential touchdown when he threw behind an open redshirt junior receiver Jeremy Gallon in the end zone.
On the following drive, the Michigan defense appeared to make a big third-down stop. But Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, known for his gutsy decisions, called a fake punt on a fourth and nine from the Spartans’ own 23-yard line. It paid off, with a long run by punter Mike Sadler, but the Wolverines held Michigan State to a field goal.
The Spartans led 10-9 with 5:48 left. Then Michigan was forced to punt with 3:07 remaining.
“I don’t think anyone on our sideline thought the game was over,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke.
He was right. On its next possession, with just minutes left, Michigan State couldn’t ice the game. Maxwell passed twice, both incomplete, which conserved time and Michigan’s timeouts.
Michigan got the ball back with two minutes remaining, but stalled on the Spartans’ 41-yard line with 18 seconds remaining and no timeouts
Again, Dileo, the forgotten receiver, emerged. He caught a 20-yard pass to set up a 38-yard field goal attempt with just nine ticks left.
The snap went to the holder, Dileo (who else?). He was confident. Hoke looked at the fans behind the goal posts to gauge the kick. Robinson, couldn’t bear to look. He just dropped to a knee and prayed.
Later, after the kick sailed through the uprights, Lewan would smile big with red eyes and so would fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree. Little Dileo would lift sophomore linebacker Desmond Morgan off his feet. The fans would run onto the field to celebrate.
But now, Gibbons, the redshirt junior kicker, thought not of brunettes like usual, but of the seniors. The ones who had just one last shot to beat the Spartans.
The kick was true. It tumbled end over end, carrying with it four years worth of pain into the Ann Arbor night.
This article was updated at 9:25 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2012