EAST LANSING — Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones talked earlier in the week about their touchdown celebrations if they scored at Michigan State.
It’s practically a weekly ritual for the sophomore wide receivers. The duo, thrusted into the spotlight as the team’s premier pass catchers, knows opportunities to find paydirt are more frequent than last season. But in a rivalry game, the conversation was quick — mimic the stance on the Paul Bunyan Trophy, the one that belongs to them.
And on the season’s most perfect throw at the most critical juncture of the No. 6 Michigan football team’s 21-7 victory, Peoples-Jones did exactly that.
The Wolverines and 24th-ranked Spartans were tied, 7-7, with 2:35 left in the third quarter. Positioned at the Michigan 21-yard line, Peoples-Jones pushed off Michigan State’s Tre Person in man coverage, and had a step on him streaking down the right sideline.
“We had Donovan in one-on-one coverage, good luck with that,” said junior quarterback Shea Patterson, who finished with 212 yards and two touchdowns. “Just threw it up to him and he made a hell of a play after the catch.”
With all the time in the world, and with Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry blanketed on mirrored out routes, Patterson stepped up and hit Peoples-Jones in stride. Patterson lunged, and Peoples-Jones kicked out of his grip to stroll into a 79-yard touchdown and the Bunyan stance.
“From the start, the line did a great job of giving Shea time to deliver, which I think was the most perfect pass that he’s delivered,” Peoples-Jones said of his touchdown.
Added coach Jim Harbaugh: “That was the huge one, the one to Donovan. That throw was really right on the money. Donovan did a great job at the line of scrimmage against the press coverage and created some space, then created more space after the release. Made a fabulous over the shoulder catch.
“… That was a great time for that play to happen in the ball game.”
The Wolverines, muffled from over-conservative play-calling and insufficient execution, were initially writing a story for another arm-wrestle with the Spartans. But the connection between Patterson and Peoples-Jones — the first true deep shot of the game — represented more than commanding a lead. After a laborious game that, up to that point, featured 16 punts, three fumbles and momentum in Michigan State’s favor, the pass signified all the differences a year can make.
Patterson read his progressions comfortably behind a confident offensive line — one that senior running back Karan Higdon called the “best in the country” for the second straight week. Behind that line, Patterson was a capable thrower who can place a football with pinpoint accuracy.
The touchdown deflated Michigan State, which struggled wire-to-wire to generate any offense of its own. It’s No. 1 rush defense in the country surrendered almost triple its per game average, with 144 of the yards belonging to Higdon.
“We were motivated from the start,” Higdon said. “They were talking trash all week, we stayed quiet, stayed in our space and we knew what it was gonna be when we got here and we just elevated our enthusiasm.”
It was a dogfight clouded with the revelry that this historic rivalry possesses, but with a difference-making touchdown that redefined the image of 2018 Michigan football. Following resounding wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks, the noise of a team that doesn’t show up in big games was muted.
It’s a credit to an unwavering defense that has shined each year of the Harbaugh era. And now, it’s also a credit to the Patterson-led offense that can air out the ball when it needs it most and succeed.
“That was one of the most gritty games I’ve been a part of,” Patterson said. “The defense put us in good situations, they were playing lights out. That gave us confidence to stay within ourselves, so that when we get that moment to break through we’re not gonna give it back.”
And with Peoples-Jones’ touchdown, the Wolverines never relented. The Paul Bunyan Trophy turned from celebration to hardware returning to Ann Arbor.