The clock started ticking 1,813 days ago.
Mike Hart sat behind the podium and spat in the Spartans’ faces. “Little brother,” he mocked, with a grin as devious as can be. Michigan had won six straight against Michigan State.
It wasn’t just bulletin-board material. It started a timer, one that ticked silently for a while, marking the pace of the rivalry. That ticking grew one year at a time until it finally became an incessant pounding. The Spartans had won four straight over the Wolverines.
On Saturday, that clock finally came to a jarring halt at Michigan Stadium.
Taylor Lewan sprinted to the Michigan State sideline, brushing Spartans aside as he looked left and right for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. It wasn’t there.
“This is my first time beating Michigan State, so I don’t really know how that works,” Lewan said.
Michigan State players Mark Scarpinato and Niko Palazeti bristled, shoving the 6-foot-8, 309-pound Lewan back toward the field. The fight wasn’t yet out of their eyes, but the Spartans were done.
Behind the Michigan State bench, Sparty let his head droop. The green-and-white mascot glanced back toward the field and then was the first to start up the tunnel.
When the Wolverines sprinted up the tunnel minutes later with mixtures of relief and elation on their faces, the trophy was waiting for them in the locker room.
“Paul’s back,” Jordan Kovacs said with a smile.
“Right where he needs to be,” Denard Robinson added in stride.
During pregame warm-ups, the Spartans half-surprised the crowd by emerging with chrome helmets. On the other half of the field, it looked like business as usual for Michigan. But this week was a little different. It always is. Their mindset was printed out in maize on their blue T-shirts.
“Finish,” the shirt read. “Through the whistle for my team.”
‘Team 133’ did just that. They finally learned to finish the Spartans. And that finishing came from everyone, even the least likely candidates.
Vincent Smith finished. Nobody expected Robinson to hand off with two minutes remaining on the clock. But Smith took the handoff, cut right past two defenders and scampered for a 12-yard gain.
Drew Dileo finished. Nobody expected the kid who recently said, “That’s why they call me The White Receiver” to make three crucial catches and be Michigan’s leading receiver against the Spartans.
Brendan Gibbons finished. Nobody expected the stocky, long-haired kicker to play hero, much less kick three perfect field goals. Two years ago he went 1-for-5 kicking. He just plain stunk.
Today, they each came away victors.
While the entire Michigan team — from head coach Brady Hoke to the players — was careful to not give Michigan State any bulletin-board material this week, they had the edge entering against a rather mediocre Spartan squad, but they stuck to the company line:
Michigan-Michigan State was a big game, a rivalry game. No rivalry game is bigger than the rest. A win means a step closer to the team’s stated goal of a Big Ten championship.
But failure to beat the in-state rivals had been weighing on everyone’s mind, and not just this week.
“It’s been a conversation for the last four years,” Dileo said.
Kovacs said the victory “got the monkey off the back a little bit.”
“This program was in desperate need of a win in this game,” Kovacs said. “I’m glad that we executed.”
Oh, but it wasn’t pretty. Neither offense could move, with only small flashes of excitement here and there. Michigan won on four field goals. The last time the Wolverines won a game without a touchdown was Nov. 11, 1995, when Michigan beat Purdue, 5-0, on a safety and a field goal.
That’s messy, gritty, boring football.
But it really didn’t matter how it got done. Through the whistle, until the clock read zeroes, Michigan just had to finish.
— Nesbitt can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.