If you didn’t know Keith Nichol from the recruiting trail, you met him Saturday night.

The Michigan State wide receiver’s miraculous Hail Mary touchdown reception against No. 6 Wisconsin as time expired put the Spartans in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten Legends division.

Sometimes you’re good enough to get lucky against a national title contender. The biggest factor, though, is that Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has his players and has established his style of Spartan football. And his team is light years ahead of the 7-6 record he set in his first season in East Lansing.

No. 17 Michigan, on the other hand, just isn’t there yet. That was clear when the Spartans beat up on Michigan — figuratively and literally — in a 28-14 victory on Oct. 15.

Michigan learned two things in the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. First, on the banks of the Red Cedar, there’s a school that’s known to brawl.

Then, everyone learned that Michigan State is a heck of a football team, with the most tenacious defense in the Big Ten.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke wasn’t hesitant to admit that his team got “out-physicaled.”

The coach instilled an attitude of toughness from the day he took office in Fort Schembechler. But his team left East Lansing bruised and broken.

It was the first blemish in Hoke’s regime at Michigan. He pointed the blame at himself and the coaching staff for not getting the Wolverines amply prepared.

Plenty of blame from the fanbase was directed at offensive coordinator Al Borges after blowing a fourth-and-one call that could have stolen the game for Michigan.

But Wolverine nation needs to face the facts. Michigan’s trifecta — the head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator — are coaching out of their comfort zones.

They are playing with young men they never met — and hardly heard of — until they accepted the offer to coach 10 months ago. Michigan gave former coach Rich Rodriguez three years, just long enough for him to struggle though the players left by his predecessor.

Rodriguez was finally getting his prototypical recruiting classes into uniform when he got booted out of town. And now Hoke and Co. is working with Rodriguez’s spread-offense and Swiss-cheese-defense recruits.

And Michigan is 6-1. Bowl eligible in a heartbeat.

Still, people aren’t happy. Kirk Cousins and Michigan State can walk the streets of this state knowing they bested the Wolverines four consecutive times.

So be it. But it’s time to get realistic. Don’t accept defeat, but temper your expectations.

The offense is faltering in Big Ten play. That’s expected. The defense is nation’s 28th best. Not expected.

Credit Mattison with bumping the defense 80 spots up in the rankings. And credit Hoke for Michigan’s 6-1 record.

Hoke has instilled a confidence — a rather Yost-like arrogance — within the program that can’t be ignored. It permeates the press conferences and spills onto the field. If Denard Robinson can’t keep Michigan within striking distance of a win, someone else will.

The foundation is set for a downright dominant program in the near future. This team is merely a glimpse at the Michigan teams Hoke wants to build.

This year is a reality check for Hoke, too. His version of his Michigan team didn’t have a rotating backfield, a two-quarterback set. And he certainly didn’t envision feeling more comfortable with his quarterback tucking and running instead of passing.

Michigan won’t win the Big Ten Championship in 2011. It likely won’t win the division. But that’s fine.

“The truth never hurts,” Hoke said after the Michigan State game. “It’s things that aren’t truthful that hurt.”

This is the truth. The attitude is there, and that’s where it has to start. It’s a championship attitude, but Hoke needs players with the championship aptitude.

It will come. Because Michigan isn’t playing the kind of football that Hoke wants to play, and the Wolverines are winning anyway.

– Nesbitt knows Nichol crossed the goal line, but man was that close. He can be reached at stnesbit@umich.edu.

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