For all the talk of Michigan’s quest to reclaim the Paul Bunyan trophy and avenge last year’s defeat, the Spartans entered the Big House undaunted. Regardless of records or talent, the allure of hoisting the trophy and holding in-state bragging rights always brings out best efforts from each team.

On Saturday night, the Wolverines (8-0 overall, 5-0 Big Ten) took some punches from Michigan State (3-5, 1-4), but ultimately came out ahead, ensuring the trophy would reside in Ann Arbor for the next year with a 29-7 victory. 

“Tremendous win,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Great to have Paul back. Our players were locked in and focused the entire game.”

Celebrations, though, were dampened following the game when an ugly altercation broke out in the tunnel, with Harbaugh saying two of his players were “assaulted” — and footage corroborated his statement. Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel addressed the situation post game and said there would be a police investigation. 

The fight, perhaps, was indicative of frustrations boiling over after a difficult night for the Spartans. But in the early moments of the game, they looked ready for a battle. After forcing a fumble on the Wolverines’ opening drive, Michigan State then claimed the game’s first touchdown, connecting on a deep ball to wide receiver Keon Coleman.

Michigan was knocked on its heels and trailed 7-3 at the end of the first quarter. But it remained unfazed and conjured a counterpunch, putting together an 80 yard drive the following possession capped with a two-yard touchdown reception from junior running back Blake Corum. 

The Wolverines found the red zone often in the first half. But winding up in the end zone proved much more elusive — as they settled for short field goals on two other possessions. 

“We gotta score,” junior running back Blake Corum said. “I wanted to blow them out. And it should’ve been a blowout. But I’m not gonna make any excuses, we got to get better at the red zone. And we will.” 

Michigan held a 13-7 lead into the locker room, firmly controlling the pace of play but leaving points on the board and the door open for Michigan State to hang around. The Wolverines found themselves just 30 minutes from reclaiming Paul Bunyan. But when they returned to the field and those minutes began to tick down, Michigan’s red zone inefficiencies made that achievement look a little less attainable. 

Despite methodically moving the ball into the red zone on both third quarter possessions, and only punting once in the game, it settled for two more field goals with graduate kicker Jake Moody suddenly shouldering the offensive burden. 

“We just got to finish,” sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy said. “It’s back to back weeks where we can’t put the ball in the end zone so that’s gonna be a huge improvement for us. That’s gonna be a huge focus going forward, and we just got to get it done.”

Fortunately for the offense, Moody was up for the task, and his fifth field goal attempt in the early fourth quarter — this time from 54-yards — soared through the uprights once again to extend the lead to 22-7.

While Michigan wasn’t dominating, it still managed to slowly suffocate the Spartans. For every falter the offense had, the defense only grew stronger, stymying the Spartans over and over — and not even surrendering a first down in the second half until the fourth quarter. 

“The key to the game was the way our defense played, on third down especially,” Harbaugh said. “The three and outs in the second half. The third down stops. Just an outstanding job by our defense.”

The Wolverines could nearly feel the high of a rivalry victory, but the floodgates weren’t truly open until, ironically, the game recreated one of the rivalry’s most dramatic moments. With 13:26 left, Michigan State’s punter had some “trouble with the snap” and Michigan pounced — tackling the punter and gaining possession at the Spartans’ eight-yard line. 

This time, the red zone offense prevailed as Corum squeaked through the line for his second score of the day. From there, the rivalry morphed into a rout.

“We don’t talk, we just do,” Corum said. “(Michigan State) was talking. But you can only talk so much when you’re getting punished. It got quiet real quick.”

For 364 days, Michigan heard the chatter about what they failed to do in East Lansing, forced to live with the image of Paul Bunyan being hoisted by their rivals. But after sixty minutes of smothering football, and a refusal to wilt with the game seemingly in hand, the Wolverines finally found a way to maintain control. 

And for the first time since 2019, Paul will spend the night in Ann Arbor.