|And every Michigan fan exhaled. Finally. (Michigan Athletics)
I wanted to believe. I wanted to tell myself that the numbers were right and I was being needlessly scarred by the waning seconds of last year's game and that the computers had everything sorted out. But data, for all that it can tell us, is retrospective. It can only tell us what has happened, and potentially what may happen, but not what will happen. That does not mean that data is not instructive, it's deeply so, especially if you take the time to study it and understand what it means. It's just that "models are opinions embedded in mathematics."
What Michigan State has been this year is utterly surprising to virtually any college football observer whom I have read. It doesn't seem like it's real, even when you account for the issues like losing a quarterback like Connor Cook or seniors on the O-Line, it just appeared that Michigan State's collapse was inexplicable. Without getting all cliche, however, there was no way that Michigan State was just going to roll over in this game. A win over Michigan would, if not save their season, could easily mark the moment when they turned their season around. They were going to take their best swing at Michigan, and for the opening minutes of a swiftly paced first quarter, they looked like they had connected.
Michigan, however, tasted the blood in their mouth, smiled, and proceeded to put 27 points on Michigan State by halftime and had their biggest lead at Spartan Stadium that anyone seemed to be able to remember. It had been a long, long time. But the fear remained. For as great a day as Amara Darboh was having, grabbing nearly everything thrown in his general vicinity, there was still trepidation. Michigan hadn't looked great last week in the second half against Illinois, for a relative definition of great, would this be the case again.
So when Wilton Speight threw a pick on a wheel route, (which I didn't even know could happen because wheel routes are blameless, holy creatures) and Michigan State took the ball inside the ten-yard line, the fear began to rise once more. When Jabrill Peppers was called for a meh defensive pass interference in the end zone, giving Michigan State new life and a new set of downs, the fear rose up again. This was calmed when Michigan stopped them yet again on four straight plays inside the two-yard line, and there was a realization that this year was not all of those other years, Michigan State was not going to out tough Michigan this year.
Except, Michigan really couldn't get anything going as they had to that point. After the 14 play drive that ended on a nicely placed Kenny Allen field goal to make it 30-10, Michigan went three and out for its first punt of the game, which was followed by a Michigan State touchdown. Michigan then went six and out, which was followed by a ten play MSU drive that ended in a turnover on downs thanks to a Jabrill Peppers sack.
Michigan got the ball back with 1:46 left and MSU had two timeouts remaining. They used both after two Michigan run plays, the second of which looked like Karan Higdon got it but a meh spot, and then a run for no gain had Michigan punting again. A cleanly handled Kenny Allen snap and punt put Michigan State on their own 25 with 37 seconds remaining. Time to breathe easy. Except no.
Michigan State traversed the natural surface of Spartan Stadium quickly (on the clock, the interminable fourth quarter took forever, thanks to reviews, penalties, and general shenanigans) and with one second remaining, scored a touchdown to make it 30-23. Without warning, Michigan was facing the possibility of a kick with one second remaining where Michigan State could potentially win the game, especially if they converted the try for two.
So when Jabrill Peppers scooped up the loose football from a failed pitch and raced to the end zone for Michigan's own defensive two-point conversion, putting Michigan up an insurmountable nine points with one second remaining, there was a collective exhale from the Michigan fanbase. The onside kick attempt sailed harmlessly out of bounds and Michigan was, once more, the rightful possessor of the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
There should be no grand proclamations of order restored, or Michigan being back. Michigan is playing well, the defense, while perhaps no longer on its heretofore historic trajectory that it was before the most recent sixty minutes in East Lansing, is still formidable. At a time of the year when the chaos begins to swell and swirl around the college football landscape, Michigan went into a stadium that has been a nightmare for them for the last decade and got out with a win. Style points may matter, but style points don't make the Paul Bunyan Trophy any more beloved when it is displayed in the Towsley Family Museum. Michigan remains undefeated as the calendar turns to November. That hasn't happened in long enough that we should pause and reflect on the excellence of that fact.
By happy coincidence, today marks the tenth anniversary of my first HSR post. Though it took me some time to find my voice, and eventually start these columns, essentially my dairy of my thoughts on the most recent Michigan football game, looking back at these ten years, these eleven seasons spanned in that framework and you realize just how odd they really have been. Michigan has had as many head coaches in this time frame as it did from 1959-2007. We have seen the end of the Lloyd era, one that was as confusing at the time as anything. We have seen the high hopes for the Rodriguez era dashed on the rocky shore of tradition and "fit". We have seen the early promise of the Hoke era collapse under the weight of a lack of competencies. We have seen our way through three coaching searches, each more chaotic than the last. We have seen our belief in the power of home mocked by everyone outside the tribe except for the one person to whom it actually had to matter. We have seen the chaos of the Harbaugh era mitigated by the grace of a return to the past, an odd combination of the movie series reboot that works, retaining that which we loved about the original while giving it the right modern twist. We have seen the staggering highs of Denard running wild, and the dismal lows of well, there was a lot of them. The final analysis is simple: The last ten years are a rich tapestry, filled with more heartbreak than a Michigan fan is accustomed, but one that has made us more grateful for the small graces. Like when Michigan's do-everything linebacker runs a two-point conversion back in the final second of a rivalry game. The small graces matter, and that's why we write about them. We're trying to capture in words what we feel in our hearts, in our heads. Something beyond the data, something beyond the metrics, not because those things don't matter, but because we need to give them context.
Onward to Maryland, onward to November.