EAST LANSING — They came for Paul Bunyan, and they left with him, even if it wasn’t exactly the way they wanted.
This was true during the game for the Michigan football team, and it was true afterward, when a handful of Wolverines arrived on the Michigan State sideline looking for their hard-earned trophy, only to be told it was already in their locker room.
“Me and Delano (Hill) went to go on the field so we could run around and get little victory laps,” said senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis. “But, hey, we got it back. I’m excited to get it back home.”
There may not have been a more fitting way to cap the day for Michigan.
Heavily favored coming into Saturday’s game against Michigan State, the second-ranked Wolverines (5-0 Big Ten, 8-0 overall) came in with a feeling they might finally reclaim the Paul Bunyan Trophy for the first time since 2012. They did just that with a 32-23 win, but they still weren’t completely satisfied in how they did so.
“I was excited we got the win — hell of a win against Sparty,” Lewis said. “At the same time, there’s a lot of things we can clean up. And we saw that during the game, and we saw that we didn’t play our best game in the fourth quarter. And that’s kind of disappointing — kind of took away a little bit from our celebration, because I wanted to dominate them and we didn’t.”
Until midway through the fourth quarter, Michigan was dominating. The Wolverines led 30-10, verging on a blowout win in a series that had haunted them for the better part of a decade. But then Brian Lewerke, the third quarterback Michigan State used, threw a touchdown pass to Monty Madaris, and with 7:31 remaining, the would-be comeback started.
In a rivalry that last year came down to a fumbled punt snap that was returned for a touchdown, the tension built as the Spartans (0-5, 2-6) started putting it together. After being benched earlier in the game, Spartans starter Tyler O’Connor led another touchdown drive in the game’s waning moments. He hit freshman Donnie Corley in the end zone with one second remaining, trimming the deficit to seven.
At the time, there was still a chance — however infinitesimal — that Michigan State could pull off another miracle. A recovered onside kick could have given the Spartans half a prayer.
But instead of kicking the extra point, Michigan State went for two and ended up fumbling the ball. It was picked up and returned by redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers, bringing the score to 32-23 and smothering any hint of a spark.
Then came a kneel-down by redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight, a backflip by Peppers and a celebration that must have felt like an eternity in the making. Even as players maintained that they approached this game like every other, fans surely felt the tension as they swallowed one last breath of doubt before a triumphant exhale.
“(The fourth quarter) felt like the whole second half,” said senior running back De’Veon Smith. “It literally felt like the whole entire second half. I just wanted it to end. I wanted it to be over.”
Right from the outset, the Spartans showed they wouldn’t go quietly. On the first drive of the game, Michigan State rode LJ Scott’s legs to a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive. Scott carried the ball 10 times on that drive and finished the game with 22 rushes for 139 yards and a touchdown.
Michigan responded, though, with a pair of big drives of its own. Peppers evened the game at seven with a touchdown run from the wildcat formation, and after a defensive stop, Smith punched it in from a yard out on the next drive to give the Wolverines a 14-7 lead.
From that point on, Michigan never trailed. It tacked on another touchdown and a pair of field goals in the first half, going into halftime up 27-10. At that point, the Wolverines had piled up 287 yards at 8.7 per play.
A scoreless third quarter made the outcome seem like a foregone conclusion, and ultimately, it turned out to be. Michigan outgained the Spartans, 436-401, and Speight said the game was not as close as the score indicated. But it wasn’t lopsided, either.
Michigan State racked up 231 yards in the fourth quarter compared to 41 from the Wolverines, carving up a defense that until then had been stingy.
“We just didn’t go out and play,” Lewis said. “They played a tough game the whole way. They were trying to beat us. They were trying to give us their all the whole game. And we just didn’t come out as intense as we did (in) the second and third quarter.”
In that sense, it wasn’t necessarily the victory Michigan wanted. But at Spartan Stadium, against an upstart team looking for an upset, the Wolverines took the win, and the trophy, regardless.
“We came in here expecting to get it back,” Speight said. “It wasn’t like a surprise.”