EAST LANSING — It was a scene not even Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio himself could have scripted. Rain pouring down for the second storm of the day, for the second consecutive year, Spartan fans gradually rising from the prior malaise with each passing moment.
All it took was a Chris Evans fumble on Michigan’s own 10-yard line to turn that energy up to a fever pitch. Then, in a trademark Dantonio Moment, the Spartans tied the game on a wide receiver pass to quarterback Brian Lewerke — the Philly Special, as seen most famously in last year’s Super Bowl.
You’d seen this script before, and you knew how it ended. This is where Michigan lays down. The mentally-tough Spartans do what they do the way they want to do it, the way they’ve done it eight of the past 11 seasons against the Wolverines.
After seven breezy weeks, you wanted a test of this team’s mental fortitude? There it was.
And with it rested the hopes and dreams of Michigan’s season, teetering precariously in the balance.
Then, junior quarterback Shea Patterson found Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 79-yard touchdown — a throw Peoples-Jones called “the most perfect pass” — and the rain subsided. And so did the monkey draped on Michigan’s back, as it paraded to a 21-7 win.
“This was big time. Every week it seems that people will … find a reason to critique us, about why we don’t deserve to be a top-ranked team,” said junior running back Karan Higdon. “Last week it was we don’t show up in big games. This week it’s Michigan State has the number one run defense.
“Blah, blah blah.”
Certainly, though Higdon may dismiss them, many of those questions have been warranted. Prior to this win, the best road win of the Harbaugh era was either the 32-23 win in East Lansing two years ago, against a team that would finish 3-9, or a come-from-behind win over Minnesota in 2015. Neither of those approach this triumph.
Along the step-ladder that has been the last seven weeks, there has been appropriate skepticism.
It had to come against a ranked opponent. It had to come on the road. It had to come against a rival.
Check. Check. Check.
And you know what, Michigan fans? It’s time to believe.
You can believe this team is different, that those scars unearthed in the week one loss to Notre Dame are healing.
After beating a ranked opponent for the first time since 2006, the first time in 18 attempts to do so, you can believe that this program is turning a corner. Perhaps permanently.
And you can believe that Saturday marked a new chapter for Michigan in this rivalry. Or so Wolverines players would like you to believe.
Two hours before the game, both teams got started as you might expect. With Michigan on the field for pre-game warmups, Michigan State started their “Spartan Walk,” in which the players link and walk across the field. When the Wolverine players wouldn’t move, fifth-year senior Lawrence Marshall was clothes-lined by a Michigan State player.
Minutes later, junior linebacker Devin Bush walked toward the logo on the middle of the field and adamantly scuffed it up with his cleats.
After the game, fifth-year senior Chase Winovich, still unquestionably pumping with adrenaline, channeled his inner Mike Hart in 2007.
“We came in here. I openly, in the public, called it a ‘Revenge Tour.’ Called them out, said they’re next. We came in here, slashed their field before the game, and we still came out here and just got after them every single play.
“We knew that they couldn’t hang with us. We did what we had to do. Sometimes your little brother starts acting up, and you just gotta put them in place.”
Put aside for a moment whether this will be used as motivation for the foreseeable future (it will) or whether Winovich — off to the NFL next season — will have to deal with the repurcussions (he won’t). That was the exhalation of a decade’s worth of frustration, a privilege he and his teammates have now earned.
After the game, Harbaugh mentioned a quote he’d come across for this week, from Alonzo Mourning.
“Adversity introduces a man to himself.”
Saturday afternoon, Michigan faced adversity like it hadn’t since South Bend. There was every form of precipitation, fumbles galore, a road crowd, one giant mental hurdle weighing down the program.
And on the other end the Wolverines found out who they are: a team with legitimate post-season aspirations, and with the mental fortitude to get there.
None of this is to say this team is assured a Big Ten title or a College Football Playoff appearance. Penn State and Ohio State will surely have something to say about that. But it’s now safe to say this team is different.
As the yards continued to churn and the clock wilted away, as fans in green and white streamed for the exit and the chants of “Let’s go Blue” steadily gained volume, that became abundantly clear.
And then the clouds cleared and sunshine peaked through.