EAST LANSING — No. 24 Michigan State had many of the requisite elements to upset the No.6 Michigan football team in crushing, season-tarnishing fashion. Turnovers, poor weather and missed opportunities threatened to prevent the Wolverines from delivering their dagger — just as it had in previous years.
For a moment Saturday, it looked like Michigan State could retain the Paul Bunyan Trophy. But two second-half touchdowns were enough to lift Michigan over the Spartans, 21-7, in East Lansing on Saturday, in the 950th win in program history.
Senior running back Karan Higdon, on a rain-drenched field, slipped and relinquished Michigan’s second fumble of the third quarter with the score tied at seven. Despite the Wolverines’ seeming control of the game, momentum flipped the Spartans’ way.
Feeling the weight of the moment, junior quarterback Shea Patterson snuck into the defensive huddle before the ensuing drive.
“(He said), ‘Y’all keep doing your thing. Let’s get the ball back, we’re gonna score,’ ” said junior linebacker Devin Bush.
The defense did just that — the fourth of six occasions the Spartans went three-and-out — before Patterson took things into his own hands.
Towards the end of the third quarter, Patterson completed to sophomore receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones in-stride, who went the distance for a 79-yard, go-ahead touchdown.
“The throw to Donovan was right on the money,” said coach Jim Harbaugh. “Donovan did a great job at the line of scrimmage against press coverage and created the space. And (he) created more space after the release, made a fabulous over the shoulder catch.”
After another Michigan State three-and-out, the Wolverines were faced with a fourth-and-two in Spartan territory. When the defense collapsed on sophomore fullback Ben Mason, Patterson tucked it away and picked up the conversion with an 11-yard scamper.
It proved to be critical. Michigan made it 21-7 soon after with a Mason five-yard scoring run.
Dagger delivered indeed.
“We’ve been a really good third-quarter team and fourth-quarter team,” Harbaugh said. “Guys are playing hard and smart the entire ball game. I think we’re a well-conditioned team, we’re a smart team. I think all that factors into it.”
The contest didn’t go without its usual rivalry drama, however.
Up 7-0 early in the third quarter, junior running back Chris Evans fumbled on Michigan’s seven-yard line.
The turnover prompted Michigan State’s infamous trickery. Off a double reverse, receiver Darrell Stewart completed to quarterback Brian Lewerke to tie the game.
But the Spartans’ poor passing attack rendered their offense disjointed and unable to further take advantage. Michigan State gained just 94 yards the whole game and was 0-for-12 on 3rd down. Lewerke, pulled in the fourth quarter, finished an abysmal 5-for-25 passing.
“Those are the kinds of statistics you dream (of),” Harbaugh said. “That was a dream game.”
Ten minutes of gameplay in, inclement weather delayed the contest an hour-and-15 minutes.
Michigan continued its first scoring drive when play resumed. On third down near mid-field, Patterson attempted to thread the needle to senior receiver Grant Perry, but the pass was deflected. With Spartans swarming for the interception, it was sophomore wide receiver Nico Collins who corralled the ball for a first down. Five runs and a 25-yard completion to junior tight end Nick Eubanks later, Patterson found Collins — cleanly — for a six-yard touchdown pass.
But, spectacularly, that was the Wolverines’ only score of the first half.
Michigan dominated the field position battle while stifling the Spartans’ offense, starting four-straight drives in opposing territory during the second quarter. But it translated into zero points.
Unable to move the ball, the Wolverines elected to punt from inside Michigan State’s 40-yard line on three consecutive possessions. And when Quinn Nordin finally got to test the rain-drenched field, the redshirt sophomore placekicker shanked a 36-yard attempt.
Despite a total yardage advantage of 170 to 49, Michigan took just a 7-0 advantage into halftime. But even with the momentum teetering back-and-forth during the second half, the Wolverines found their way to a needed victory.
“It’s a message to other teams that we ain’t coming to play,” Bush said. “We’re coming to handle business.”