The last play of Saturday’s game against Michigan State spoiled the Michigan football team’s undefeated Big Ten record, snapped its five-game winning streak and put a serious dent in its Big Ten championship hopes.
But before that play, the Wolverines and their in-state rivals were more even than they had been in three years. The Spartans never led Saturday’s game until time expired.
Michigan gets a bye this week before its next game at Minnesota on Oct. 31. Until then, here are five things we learned from Saturday’s game:
1. Jourdan Lewis vs. Aaron Burbridge is the best wide receiver-defensive back matchup we’ll see all season.
Let’s put it this way: Lewis, who guarded Burbridge all day, had six pass breakups in the game — and Burbridge still pulled down nine catches for 132 yards.
About half of Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook’s throws went to Burbridge, and on many of them, it was hard to find anything Burbridge or Lewis could have done better. If Burbridge made the catch, he grabbed the ball at the highest point despite tight coverage from Lewis (who is three inches shorter). If Lewis broke it up, Burbridge was right there, ready to take it if not for Lewis.
Both players have drawn praise for their play all year, and it’s no longer a stretch to call them the best at their positions in the Big Ten. Burbridge now leads the Big Ten with 100.3 yards per game, and Lewis now has 14 pass breakups and two interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown.
Lewis noted last Monday that the two have a history that goes back to high school. When Burbridge was a senior at Farmington Hills Harrison and Lewis a junior at Detroit Cass Tech, Harrison routed Cass Tech, 43-7. Lewis said he never forgot that, and it was fascinating to watch the two battle every play Saturday.
2. This rivalry is back to being closely contested up front.
The Spartans dominated Michigan at the line of scrimmage in each of their previous two meetings. To have a chance to win Saturday, the Wolverines needed to compete better in the trenches, and they did.
Sure, excluding sacks and the muffed punt play at the end, Michigan rushed for just 87 yards on 29 carries. Fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock was sacked three times. But Michigan State didn’t fare much better: Excluding sacks, the Spartans totaled an almost-identical 85 yards on 28 rushes. The meager numbers there were more a product of both defenses being strong.
The Wolverines’ improvement in that area is a positive sign for the rest of the season as well as their competitiveness in the rivalry in the future. While Michigan State faced injuries on the offensive line, the progress coach Jim Harbaugh has made in the year since these teams last met is impressive.
3. Jabrill Peppers is ready to be a threat in all three phases.
After a long year and a half of anticipation, Michigan finally broke out its wild card, playing redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers on offense against Michigan State.
Fans had been waiting since Peppers stepped on campus to see the athlete in all three phases. Injuries hampered him last season, but he made an impact on special teams in the first six games this season. Finally, he caught two passes for 35 yards Saturday. He was easily Michigan’s leader in all-purpose yards with 164 — 35 receiving, 81 kick return and 48 punt return — despite limited action on offense.
For now, the Wolverines’ usage of Peppers on offense appears to give them a psychological edge, too. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio called two consecutive timeouts when Harbaugh first inserted Peppers alongside Rudock in the first half. Considering his production, perhaps opponents can expect to see more of the same in the coming weeks.
4. The passing game still hasn’t established a consistent threat.
Michigan’s aerial attack finally played a significant role Saturday, after five straight blowout victories required little in the way of downfield passing. Rudock missed on a couple of long throws, finishing with 168 yards on 15 completions.
Those aren’t bad numbers, especially considering the Wolverines rely more on their power running game and defense to push them ahead. But with the passing game on trial for the first time since the season opener, there didn’t appear to be a consistent receiving weapon. Redshirt junior Amara Darboh leads Michigan with just 28 receptions, 332 yards and two touchdowns. His yardage total ranks 13th in the Big Ten.
For now, Michigan’s defense is enough to beat plenty of opponents — perhaps even every one until Ohio State. But the search for a big-play threat in the passing game continues nonetheless.
5. Bold Prediction: The Michigan defense earns another shutout against Minnesota.
The Wolverines could respond to Saturday’s devastating loss in two possible ways. They could come out flat in their next game and let Michigan State beat them twice, or they could come out angry and eager to prove themselves again. Here’s guessing the latter.
The reason is a combination of a bye this week, a relentless mindset from Harbaugh and what’s sure to be a fiery performance by senior linebacker Joe Bolden, who can’t be happy about being ejected for targeting from his final Michigan State game. Meanwhile, Minnesota dropped to 4-3 with a 48-25 home loss to Nebraska on Saturday.
Powered by an impassioned captain in Bolden, Michigan’s defense has all the tools to get back to its dominating ways in Minneapolis in two weeks.