Jim Harbaugh’s second Spring Game at Michigan ended the same way two of his team’s games did last season: with an all-out battle in the trenches at the goal line. Afterward, one team’s players raised their hands in the air with glee, while the others turned their attention toward the video board, begging for a reversal of the call on the field.
But this time, both sides were on the same team, and the play came at the end of a meaningless scrimmage in the grand scheme of the upcoming season.
When redshirt junior fullback Henry Poggi fell short on a last-second two-point conversion try, it set off a celebration resembling the end of last year’s game at Minnesota, when the Wolverines made a similar game-winning goal-line stand as time expired.
This time, the result — Maize 14, Blue 13 — didn’t count, but nobody told them. It was what Harbaugh has tried to instill every day since he arrived at Michigan 15 months ago: ruthless competition, every day.
“We want to out-compete, outwork and out-challenge whoever we play,” said redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers, who played on the losing Blue team. “And if we start that in-house, it just becomes habit. Because we’re creatures of habit. We are what we repeatedly do. If you’re constantly competing, it’s just going to be second nature to you.”
A year ago, the Spring Game was considerably less dramatic. Both teams’ defenses took advantage of patchwork offensive lines, and the teams combined for seven points.
This year, however, the game featured more highlights as the Wolverines continued to fight for playing time. The three main competitors for the starting quarterback position threw or ran for all four touchdowns. Redshirt sophomore tight end Ian Bunting hauled in a 49-yard reception, and redshirt junior running back Ty Isaac was the game leader in all-purpose yards with 83.
Redshirt junior John O’Korn led the Blue team down the field in 15 plays over 7:12, scoring on the first series of the game. He converted two third downs with his legs and another with a 30-yard pass to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Drake Harris. Finally, he pitched the ball to redshirt junior quarterback Shane Morris, who then found a wide-open fifth-year senior running back Drake Johnson for a touchdown pass.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight answered with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jake Butt on the ensuing possession. Speight later scored on a naked bootleg in the third quarter. The Blue team didn’t score again until the final seconds, when O’Korn scored on a six-yard scramble before the missed two-point conversion.
“We competed ’til the very end,” said senior running back De’Veon Smith. “I feel like we still got that touchdown — might have to take that to the NCAA, look it over. But when you see two teams out there competing like that, and know that that’s your team, you’re on that team — it's a great feeling. You get butterflies in your stomach.”
For the second straight year, the winning team’s reward was a postgame steak dinner, while the losing team settled for spaghetti.
“It definitely made it more memorable,” Peppers said. “It was definitely more exciting. I wish I could have run out there, but ultimately they did and we didn’t. They finished, and we didn’t.”
Isaac took advantage of being the game’s featured back. He received 10 carries — three fewer than the rest of the running backs on both teams combined — and totaled 78 yards. After managing only one run longer than 15 yards last season, he went 30 and 29 yards on two plays Friday.
The five first-string offensive linemen were split between the teams, three on one and two on the other. But both lines held their own against strong defenses. Forty-one rushes between the two teams averaged 4.4 yards apiece. The only turnover was Morris’ interception on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half, and the rest of the game was even until the end.
Even the result, in the end, was insignificant. But Harbaugh got what he wanted: In their last taste of competition until fall camp starts in four months, the Wolverines treated it like a game, no matter the importance.
“Same approach,” Peppers said. “Always.”