Until Saturday night, the formula — despite all of its inherent flaws — had worked well enough for Michigan.
The seventh-ranked Wolverines would struggle to find their groove — usually due to multiple questionable mistakes— but they would find a way to turn it around in the second half en route to double-digit final scorelines.
It had already worked four times. But sometimes even the smallest crack can cause a ship to sink.
Against Michigan State, as heavy rain turned into a torrential downpour, Michigan’s ship didn’t just sink. It capsized.
The Wolverines had faced halftime deficits before. In their season opener against Florida, they headed to the locker room at AT&T Stadium with a 17-13 deficit. But then they scored 20 points in the second half and didn’t concede a single one, ultimately winning, 33-17.
And in its conference opener against Purdue, Michigan entered halftime at Ross-Ade Stadium trailing, 10-7. Then the Wolverines scored 21 points without conceding any and pulled off a 28-10 win.
Those scorelines didn’t reflect the full scope of either game. Still, Michigan maintained a zero in its loss column. Their struggles could be hidden behind the curtain of victory.
But Saturday night, the Wolverines lost their first game of the season to the unranked Spartans in the first night game of their 110-year rivalry. Now, there is nowhere to hide.
The first half against Michigan State was the worst one yet. At the start, though, it didn’t seem as though that would be the case.
Michigan opened the game on its 25-yard line, and moved down the field with ease. With a balanced attack courtesy of junior running back Karan Higdon, sophomore running back Chris Evans and fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn, the Wolverines drove 64 yards to the Spartan 11-yard line, taking up almost half of the first quarter in the process. But when they needed to seal the deal, their red-zone woes came back to haunt them and they had to settle for a 30-yard field goal.
Despite the offensive letdown, Michigan’s defense did what has become routine for the No. 1 unit in the country. The Wolverines didn’t allow Michigan State to gain a single yard, forcing a three-and-out after only a single minute of possession.
Michigan’s offense had the ball back with another shot at the end zone. After gaining 19 yards on the ground in three plays, the Wolverines looked ready to capitalize on their second opportunity. But at the very end of that final run, the Spartans poked the ball out of the arms of fifth-year senior running back Ty Isaac and recovered it. This time, it was Michigan’s drive that lasted for only a minute.
Michigan State took over at the Wolverines’ 46-yard line and used just six plays to make it into the end zone first.
After the Spartans scored another touchdown in the second quarter, Michigan had one more chance to answer back before the end of the first half. But O’Korn’s 36-yard pass to sophomore tight end Sean McKeon was wiped out by yet another forced fumble, and the Wolverines headed to the locker room at Michigan Stadium with a 14-3 deficit.
Though the double-digit deficit was the largest margin Michigan had to come back from this year, its prior success in the second half seemed to bode well.
“I don’t think we really struggled, you know, we were 4-0,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Mike McCray. “But it’s a game. You can’t be perfect every time. The outcome is we want to win. It doesn’t matter how we get it.”
At the start, it seemed as though that would be the case again. After Michigan State fumbled a punt and had to start at its own two-yard line, the Wolverines’ defense forced a three-and-out and Michigan had the ball at the Spartans’ 33-yard line. The Wolverines took full advantage of the favorable field position, using just four plays to score their first touchdown of the game.
But all it takes is one changed variable to render a formula obsolete. Right after that touchdown, the rain came pouring down.
And with it came a string of bad decisions on the offensive side of the ball. Instead of consistently running the ball to counteract the troublesome weather, Michigan elected to pass on three consecutive possessions.
On each of those drives, O’Korn threw an interception.
“It was tough for me to see,” O’Korn said. “I was just trying to buy time and just put it up.”
Though the Wolverines had other opportunities, they never found their second-half magic.
Michigan’s defense held up its end of the bargain, preventing the Spartans from putting any more points on the board. But amid strong winds and steady rain, the offense couldn’t find its footing.
The Wolverines may have been able to bounce back from concerning starts before, but Michigan should have taken it as more of a warning sign.
Flaws in a formula that happened to be good enough for four wins are still flaws. And on Saturday night, the Spartans made it clear: the Wolverines’ formula is not a winning one.
Ashame can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.