EAST LANSING – With the talk leading up to Saturday’s game focused on Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio’s countdown, it was only fitting that the intrastate matchup centered around both teams turning back the clock.
Badly outplayed in the first half, Michigan State reverted to a form of smashmouth football that would have made Bo Schembechler and Duffy Daugherty smile. A ground-focused attack catapulted the underdog Spartans from an 11-point deficit to a 10-point lead with just seven minutes remaining. The Spartans seemed poised to upset Michigan, a goal oft-emphasized by Dantonio’s countdown-to-Michigan clock found in Michigan State’s practice facility.
But with its seven-game winning streak and rivalry bragging rights suddenly in jeopardy, Michigan looked back three years for a how-to manual on staging a comeback of its own.
Hobbled signal-caller Chad Henne, playing at a self-diagnosed 80 percent, led a pair of Wolverine scoring drives in the game’s final seven minutes to spur No. 15 Michigan to a come-from-behind victory against a determined Michigan State, 28-24.
“We knew all game we could move the ball all game against their defense,” said Henne, who tossed two of his four touchdowns in those final two drives. “We were saying all game that they couldn’t stop Mario (Manningham). He was beating their corner every play.”
Manningham played the role of Braylon Edwards circa 2004, bringing in the game-reception on a vertical route Henne audibled to at the line. Had the junior not come down with the leaping grab, Michigan (6-0 Big Ten, 8-2 overall) would have faced a fourth-and-12 with no timeouts remaining and been out of field-goal range.
The catch was just the ending of a magical fourth-quarter performance by a gritty Henne, who along with his fellow seniors, will graduate 4-0 against Michigan State (1-5, 5-5). The senior class is also one step closer to ending its last season exactly where it did as freshmen, in Pasadena.
Regardless of the outcome of this weekend’s Wisconsin game, Michigan’s Nov. 17 matchup with Ohio State will be for at least a share of the Big Ten title, and a win would mean a second straight Rose Bowl berth for the Wolverines.
Turn back the clock to two months ago, and that’s a fate few would have expected for this once-directionless squad.
“We’ve been through a lot,” said Hart, who in limited action still topped 100 yards for the eighth straight time. “Injuries, close games, being down – all that kind of stuff – it shows you the heart of this team.”
And nothing showed its heart more than Michigan’s final two offensive drives.
Trailing by 10, Henne led a seven-play drive that lasted less than a minute, with all but one snap resulting in a first down. On the one play Henne didn’t quarterback – he limped off the field with an ankle injury – freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett fumbled the ball after being sacked. Mike Hart, playing a week before his scheduled return with an ankle injury, opportunistically picked it up and broke a tackle to turn what could have been Michigan State’s nail in the coffin into a positive for the Wolverines.
“I wasn’t thinking anything except thank God for a first down, because we didn’t have many of them. We got a break there,” Carr said of Hart’s recovery.
Henne returned the next play, and five snaps later, he found Greg Mathews in the left corner of the endzone on a perfect touch pass to cut the deficit to three.
The Michigan defense, which held the Spartans to just 85 yards in the first half but struggled mightily against the run in the second, now had to step up after yielding 21 straight points to Michigan State.
A look back to the second half’s first 20 minutes wouldn’t have inspired much optimism.
Javon Ringer’s merry-go-round 72-yard run set up Michigan State’s lead-taking touchdown with a quarter left. That drive was bookended by two long, bruising drives by the Spartans. Twenty-one of the drives’ 24 plays were runs, most of which went through a tired Michigan defense.
But this time around, the Michigan defense was ready. Down by three, it forced Michigan State to punt.
And after Michigan regained the lead on offense, suddenly the Spartans were racing against the clock with its ground game shackled.
“Had it become a running game, had there been six, seven minutes left (instead of two), it would have been much more difficult for us, because in the second half, they had us on our heels,” Carr said.
The pound-it-down-your-throat Spartan offense had to spread out, and after being sacked, it was knocked out of its comfort zone and eventually ran out of downs.
More important, it ran out of time to pull off the upset it so desperately wanted.