EAST LANSING – It was a combination of relief and redemption.
Seconds after Garrett Rivas’s field goal sailed through the uprights, the Michigan sideline emptied. Players gathered in a circle and started chanting, “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine” as they jumped around and pumped their fists in the air.
A week’s worth of pressure had just disappeared.
“When Michigan State is ranked ahead of you and you’re Michigan, it’s not good,” tailback Mike Hart said. “There’s pressure there. That’s just pressure in itself. If Michigan had lost, it would have confirmed every criticism aimed at the program this season. Spread offenses own this defense. Chad Henne has succumbed to the sophomore slump. Lloyd Carr can’t coach. Michigan isn’t the powerhouse it used to be.
But by beating the Spartans in overtime for the second straight season, the Wolverines proved all their critics wrong.
No one expected this Michigan team – which blew leads against Notre Dame and Wisconsin – to hold on against the Spartans’ high-powered offense. But Henne matched Drew Stanton throw for throw, and the defense allowed 21 points – 28 fewer than Michigan State’s season average.
No one expected Hart to be so spectacular in his return from injury, or wide receiver Carl Tabb to step up in place of the injured Steve Breaston. But Hart, Tabb and the rest of the offense wanted this game and accumulated 488 yards of total offense – the most it has gained in a contest all season.
And certainly no one expected Carr to go for it on back-to-back fourth downs late in the game.
But we should have expected nothing less. After all, it’s been a long time since Michigan lost a game it absolutely had to win.
Let’s be honest: As much as we wish it could, even a program as storied as this one can’t expect to win a national title every year. Teams have little control over their destinies in the BCS; it’s not fair to call this season a failure simply because Michigan won’t win a national title.
Carr recognized long ago that winning the Big Ten should be the Wolverines’ ultimate focus, and, in case you forgot, he’s led his team to five conference titles in the past eight years. I’ll guarantee Michigan will never give up its title without a fight under Carr.
Notre Dame is a big game every year, but it’s not really a must-win, because losing it doesn’t affect Michigan’s chances for the conference crown. In this era of parity in the Big Ten, teams can still win the title with one conference loss. True must-win games don’t begin until after Michigan has a Big Ten loss. And this is when the Wolverines are most dangerous.
The 2003 season is a perfect example. Michigan recorded two early losses to Oregon and Iowa, which meant it had to win every game for the rest of the regular season. The Wolverines didn’t lose again until the Rose Bowl. Michigan might not always win big games, but it rarely drops games they have to win to stay in the conference hunt.
By my definition, Michigan’s last must-win loss came against Ohio State in 2001. With a win, the Wolverines would have shared the Big Ten title with Illinois and earned a berth in a BCS bowl game. But the Buckeyes upset Michigan 26-20, and the Wolverines had to settle for another trip to central Florida.
After Saturday’s game, I know this year’s squad isn’t set on Orlando just yet.
Its resolve starts from the top. Carr has heard critics call him conservative and old-fashioned for weeks – or years – but he silenced them on the game’s first drive when he lined up Henne at receiver and let Antonio Bass take the snap.
On that same drive, Hart ripped a 45-yard run on just his second touch of the game. After the play, Hart turned to the Michigan State sideline and told the Spartans that Michigan had come to play and, more than anything, to win. Hart remained the Wolverines’ spark for the rest of the game – willing himself into the end zone and burning Michigan State for eight yards on a fourth-and-1 late in regulation.
The Michigan defense gave up too many third-down conversions, but it showed up big when it was needed most and its intensity never wavered. On one play in the fourth quarter, nose tackle Gabe Watson went after Stanton but couldn’t notch a sack. Watson then powered across the field and bulldozed Michigan State’s Javon Ringer after the completion.
Right guard Matt Lentz couldn’t explain why the Wolverines pulled it out this week when they broke down at Wisconsin. But I think the reason is clear: When its back is pressed against a wall – when it absolutely can’t lose – Michigan finds a way to win. No matter what went wrong on Saturday, the Wolverines were determined to keep themselves in the Big Ten race. It’s frustrating how often they get in these situations, but by now we should learn not to count them out so quickly.
“We knew it was a must-win,” Hart said. “We knew we had to come out here and win. And we did it.”
Just like Michigan (almost) always does.
– Wright can be reached at email@example.com.