EAST LANSING — After Michigan State turned the ball over on downs on the Michigan football team’s 4-yard line in the third quarter, the Wolverines (5-0 Big Ten, 8-0 overall) knew they had their work cut out for them if they wanted to get back in enemy territory.
The first play fizzled out quickly after sophomore running back Karan Higdon picked up two yards, but redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight saw a golden opportunity on the following play.
Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne was glued to wide receiver Amara Darboh, but Speight threw the ball to the fifth-year senior anyway, hurling it 39 yards down the left sideline. While falling, Darboh reeled it in with his left hand for the final catch of his career day.
“There was that deep ball down the left-hand side where Amara couldn’t really get his right hand up because he was being held, so he was able to pull it in with one arm,” Speight said. “To get from the 5-yard line to close to the 50-yard line — that’s a momentum-shifter. It makes my job easier when I have a bigger target.”
The drive ultimately ended in a field goal, and though the final score of 32-23 may not reflect it, the game was close well into the fourth quarter. Darboh hadn’t experienced a Michigan win over the Spartans since he redshirted in 2012, but in Saturday’s victory, he made the difference the Wolverines needed. Darboh was the recipient of half of Speight’s completions, catching eight passes for 165 yards.
“His game is very high-level,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Some of the highest I’ve seen of a college receiver. I think he’s well-established as a great playmaker and also disciplined in every single route he runs. He blocks, great teammate — just, he does it all, and does it the best he can possibly do. He’s got a lot of God-given talent and a great work ethic.
“It was a premier game for him today.”
After celebrating having the Paul Bunyan Trophy back in the Wolverines’ locker room, Darboh returned to business as usual and met with the media.
Nothing was more special about winning this in-state rivalry game in East Lansing, he said. He didn’t do anything differently in preparation for Michigan State (0-5, 2-6). He just practiced well during the week, and Speight put the ball where it needed to be. That was enough to make the difference Saturday.
“He showed up to play,” said senior running back De’Veon Smith. “He made some great plays. I think he had two one-handed grabs today. Hey, with the way the kid works at practice, it shows up on the field. He will give you 100 percent every single play.”
Though it isn’t easy by any means to lob a pass half a football field down the left sideline, it may be more challenging to trust your receivers to make a play. Speight showed no qualms about throwing to Darboh, allowing him to average 20.6 yards per reception.
“There was a couple times here and there where they weren’t exactly open — they were covered — but when you’re throwing to guys like Jake Butt or Amara Darboh, that’s not really considered covered in the quarterback’s eyes,” Speight said. “I was able to throw them a couple of high balls because I knew they would be able to go and get it over the top of the corner.”
Darboh showed why he’s leading Michigan in receiving yards, making five catches for 103 yards in the second quarter alone. Before the season, Harbaugh indicated that Darboh had become the Wolverines’ No. 1 receiver.
Saturday’s performance illustrated why.