As I left my friends' house at the conclusion of Saturday night's epic contest between Michigan and Michigan State I peaked at my cell phone to check the messages I had ignored while the game was still in doubt. There were various "Omg! We sux!" "Manham!" "hrt attk, srusly" messages, but the one I got from my buddy MB summed it put perfectly "2x fugly, but ill take it."
It was not a pretty game on either sideline or on either side of the ball. Control of the game was taken, then ceded at the most inopportune times by both teams. As soon as one combatant would seemingly be in a position to stomp the life out of his opponent, some mistake or superhuman effort would lift their opposition above them. It was bizarre. At the end of it though, a familiar theme rang true, Michigan won.
But this time it wasn't because of Spartan mistakes, though Michigan's lead in the first half could easily be chalked up to a mountain of Michigan State penalties. To the contrary, the Spartans were a more than worthy adversary when the game mattered the most. It wasn't the standard Spartan meltdown of turnovers and penalties to rob them of a victory. It was a determined Michigan team and, specifically, a determined Chad Henne, that overcame a second half Spartan surge that on most nights would've won them the game.
The later half of the second and entire third quarter was a disaster for the Wolverines. Mike Hart's ankle allowed him to play, but robbed him of his effectiveness in the second half. As a result, the Michigan passing and rushing attacks ground to a halt. Emboldened by the knowledge that there was no Hart in the backfield MSU's pass rushers attacked with a new found vigor that was largely missing in the first half. Henne's passes sailed high. Minor was stuffed in the backfield. And punt followed punt followed punt. After taking a 14-3 lead, Michigan punted 7 out or 8 straight possessions. The time they didn't punt during that span was an interception.
During that time Michigan State seized the momentum. Jehuu Caulcrick stampeded his way through the Michigan defense, picking up four a carry and inflicting as much pain as possible along the way. By the end of the game Brandent Englemon was watching from the sidelines and Stevie Brown and Anton Campbell were playing crucial minutes for the Wolverines. Caulcrick's backfield mate was just as effective. Jevohn Ringer, seemingly stopped in the backfield by Crable, spun to the inside, reversed field and reeled off a 72 scamper to the Michigan 6 before Crable, trailing the play like a captain should, brought Ringer down.
After Caulcrick's second touchdown put State up 24-14, if you were watching at home, you were probably cursing, muttering and contemplating whether it was worth it to stick your fist through the dry wall or coffee table. Not the TV. The TV is your friend. But this damn coffee table is a jinx. Yeah. That's it.
Apparently, and thankfully, this wave of concern and malcontent did not reach the Michigan sideline. Mike Hart, echoing my re-branding of Big Ten mascots, said the following after the game:
How Mike was unconcerned is a mystery to me. However, my money is on him knowing something I don't. Knowing that after two heartbreaking losses early in the year, this team had run out of sorrow to distribute to its fan base. Perhaps he knew the defense was tired of being labeled Michigan's weak link. That after giving up the Little Brown Jug, finally dropping one to Barry Alverez in 2005, losing its legs and pride on the way to and from Pasadena last year, or the shame of ASU and Oregon back-to-back, this team had finally tired of losing games it shouldn't. Maybe he knew all of that. But he also knew Manningham and Henne, bum shoulder and all, were on the field.
Henne started the comeback with a perfectly placed touchdown pass to Greg Matthews. It was a drive that never should've been. Jamming his injured knee on the series first play, Henne limped off the field and was replaced by Ryan Mallett. Mallett immediately fumbled the snap, instead of killing the drive it invigorated it. Mike Hart did what only Mike Hart can do, turn a broken play into gold. Scooping the ball off the turf, Hart turned an 8 yard loss into an 11 yard gain. That carry was Hart's last of the game, but certainly his most important. On 2 & 10 from the State 14 Henne found Mathews in single coverage down the left sideline. Despite good coverage, Henne's pass hit Matthews in stride just as he crossed the goal line, and a half second before State's safety to rotate in to help his beaten corner.
As spectacular as the drive was, there was plenty of time for State to answer. After two solid, time consuming drives State retook the field with ample confidence and two healthy running backs. It didn't matter. Just as Caulcrick's straight ahead running had energized the Spartans' early in the second, Henne's pass to Matthews energized Michigan. Michigan State managed just 8 yards on three straight runs and was forced to punt. Gaps were closed. Tackles were sharp. No quarter was given. Shades of 2006, the good kind, reappeared.
Less than three minutes later Henne aired a 31 yard bomb to the back right corner of the endzone. Manningham, somehow having broken through the club, handcuffs, ball gag, etc. that Otis Wiley had been using all night to slow him down, managed to gain separation, jumped into the air, twisting counter clockwise and snatched the ball out of midair. I'm convinced he hung in the air an extra second just to show everyone he could, before landing inbounds in the endzone to give Michigan back the lead for good.
Finally, and appropriately, it was up to the defense to finish the job. Despite four quick, short completions, the game was over. Ron English, perhaps learning from the fate suffered by Virginia Tech two weeks earlier, brought the house in on Hoyer. Obi Ezeh and Shawn Crable collapsed on Hoyer for an 8 yard loss. Three straight incompletes later, Michigan exited the way it had since 2001, winners.
If you could cut out the middle of the game. Erase it entirely, it would've been a tremendous affair for Michigan. They began and ended the game in control. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. Cinderella showed up at the ball with her ugly step sisters, and you had to dance with them too. In a 60 minute game, Michigan legitimately controlled only a third of that time. Like I said, it wasn't pretty.
If he watched with the same pained expressions that I demonstrated to my family and friends on Saturday, my buddy was probably on the exact wavelength I was. The game, minus about 10 minutes of beauty was hideous. It was, however, a win.
It may have been fugly. But I'll take it too.