EAST LANSING – Prior to Saturday’s game against Michigan State, much of the talk centered on the Spartans’ vaunted ground attack – the best in the conference, averaging more than 210 yards per game.
Pundits questioned whether Michigan’s run defense could hold up against the tandem of Jehuu Caulcrick (thunder) and Javon Ringer (lightning) after five straight weeks against spread-based teams.
After the first half Saturday, those questions appeared answered. The Wolverines held Michigan State to just 29 rushing yards (not counting sacks) before halftime, and facing a 14-3 deficit, it looked as if the Spartans would have to take to the air.
But after a Michigan three-and-out to open the half, Michigan State pounded the Wolverines. And pounded them and pounded them and pounded them. Of the 14 plays the Spartans ran on the 75-yard drive that culminated with a one-yard Caulcrick touchdown, 13 were runs. Michigan State converted all three of the third downs it faced on the drive, all with short Caulcrick runs.
“I think that we just kind of relaxed a little bit,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “We had to get our heads together. We got a lead, and everybody just kind of died down a little bit. (Michigan State) came out with the intensity.”
Said Michigan linebackers coach Steve Szabo: “The first half was what I would have expected us to do, and then the second half we didn’t do it. That’s disappointing. I’m glad it happened, because it sends our players a message. We haven’t played a good running football team in while, we had a chance to play one today and found out we were a little bit short.”
After Michigan stopped the Spartans’ next drive, Ringer showed why he’s considered one of the best running backs in the nation. Ringer started his run left and was met several yards behind the line of scrimmage by linebacker Shawn Crable. Crable spun Ringer around but couldn’t take him down. Ringer kept his balance and, reversing field, raced down the right sideline for 72 yards before Crable caught him.
“That’s what I told Ringer after the game, I said ‘You little blankety-blank, I had you. And then you get out on me,’ ” defensive coordinator Ron English said. “But I respect Ringer. He’s a great player, and he made a great run.”
While English was disappointed that the tackle wasn’t made originally, he had trouble staying mad at Crable.
“I was so proud of (Crable) and the play he made that I couldn’t even get pissed off,” English said. “If you can’t get excited about that play, you shouldn’t be out there.”
But Michigan State tossed a short touchdown pass on the next play to take a 17-14 lead. And after another Michigan three-and-out, the Spartans went back to the ground, running on eight of the drive’s 10 plays. Caulcrick did most of the work, gaining 35 yards on seven carries and finishing the drive with another one-yard touchdown that extended the Spartan lead to 10 with less than eight minutes remaining.
After Chad Henne led a quick touchdown drive to cut the deficit to three, the Wolverine defense knew it needed a stop so its offense could finish the comeback.
And it did. Caulcrick gained eight yards on second down, but on third-and-two – the same down and distance Caulcrick converted numerous times earlier in the half – the Michigan defense rose to the challenge, stuffing him for no gain.
“We had to make a stand, and we picked the right time to do it,” defensive tackle Terrance Taylor said. “We didn’t play too well in the second half – people out of their gaps, people not doing their job – but we stepped it up and that’s what counts.”
With another touchdown added by Henne and wide receiver Mario Manningham to regain the Wolverine lead, the defense stepped back on the field needing just one more stop to lock up the victory.
Spartan quarterback Brian Hoyer completed five straight passes, quickly moving his team to the Michigan 34-yard line with 1:34 remaining. But Crable and linebacker Obi Ezeh met Hoyer in the backfield on first down, dropping him for an eight-yard loss. Hoyer’s second pass was well-defended by backup safety Stevie Brown, and his third attempt was broken up by cornerback Morgan Trent. On fourth-and-18, Hoyer’s pass intended for Kellen Davis was too far in front of the well-covered tight end, and Michigan finally breathed a sigh of relief.
“We just had to man up,” Taylor said. “It was do or die. We were going to stop them or we weren’t. Everybody stood up like a man and did their job. Morgan made a great play. Steve Brown came in and made a heck of a play. We just had a lot of guys step up the last two series.”