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Michigan-Michigan State: Exorcism Redux

After finally beating the Buckeyes last November, only one more stop remained on the Brady Hoke Revenge Tour. Paul Bunyan returns to the very spot on which four year's worth of dust had accumulated.

Leon Halip

Michigan 12, Michigan State 10

Time moves slow and easy. It walks in front of you on the city sidewalk, deliberately and without self-awareness. It knows that you have somewhere to be, somewhere to go, and it obstructs your path, the narrow path of history.

It knows when you are anxious, and strives to augment that creeping malaise to the point of ubiquity. Time waits for you to think about that thing, and then it pulls an unseen lever.

And then time stops. You have to think about these things, these things that hang around your neck. You shot the albatross, and everything fell apart. So it hangs, around your neck, even when it sits at the bottom of the sea. It weighs on you, impresses its form onto your conscience like a fiery, irrevocable branding of the mind's memory warehouse. It is the material of retrospect.

This is not an unfamiliar feeling. I grew up watching Michigan win the national championship in 1997 as a child, around the same time that the Jordan era Bulls were completing a second 3-peat. The seas were easy and the skies were clear. The birds flocked in concentric circles in a jovial fashion, bereft of portent.

Ohio State hired Jim Tressel, and things fell apart. The center could not hold. Michigan State eventually hired Mark Dantonio, and things began to fall apart there, too. The empire that once existed, one that you had to consult dusty history books in order to remember that it actually once held sway, crumbled and sputtered. An iron fist and a name, Michigan, was no longer enough to keep the restless vassal states at bay. The intruders were at the gate. No, they were already inside. You had to speak their language, a strange foreign tongue.

On Wednesday, as I tried to consider whether or not to make the trip to Ann Arbor, I was consumed by restlessness. I rode a rickety rickshaw back in time down the avenue of the recent past, and all I could see along the way was dilapidated buildings and unkept streets, strewn with detritus and a penetrating sense of decline. What happened here?

By Thursday, however, the decision was clear. Time moves slowly, but it doesn't wait. It doesn't stop. You keep apace or you don't, risking it all in one fell swoop.

If not now, then when?

The Offense

For all of MSU's offensive struggles to date, one point was still on the Spartans' side: the defense was still a staunch unit, one that would give a Denard-led Michigan offense trouble once again. In MSU's three losses, the Spartans gave up an average of only 18.7 points per game, and that includes a double overtime affair against Iowa last week.

As we saw on Saturday, those concerns were not unfounded, as the Spartans held Denard at bay throughout most of the game, just like they did last year. I was at the game, so some of these observations will be more anecdotal than anything else (I'm watching it again on the Internets as I write this), but excluding a bad read in the ground game here and there, the Spartans, via a combination of talent and scheme, did not afford Denard the necessary space with which to work.

When Denard made a beeline for the edge, at least one defender was always there to make the play. When Borges called the staple inside power plays, there was very little real estate available. Even when there was a little green, Spartan linebackers and defensive backs were there to make the tackle. For instance, the screen pass to Fitzgerald Toussaint on the second drive would have gone for a very long gain if not for an impressive tackle by Curtis Drummond on the edge. Although this sort of thing didn't represent the bulk of Michigan's failed attempts on the ground, it did seem as if MSU was making some impressive 1-on-1 tackles on a regular basis. This should come as no surprise. Again, the Spartans can play defense. We know that.

Denard finished with 96 yards on 20 carries, a total that includes his 44-yard scamper late in the game. It was a tough day on the ground for #16, but this wasn't exactly unexpected. Denard would have to make plays through the air to beat this MSU team.

He was 14/29 on the day, good for 163 yards on 5.6 YPA (and one fairly innocuous interception at the end of the first half). This game was basically a microcosm of Denard's CV as a passer. In a word, it was frustrating. As he has done throughout most of his time as a student of the Al Borges School of Offense, Denard flipped between being ultra-accurate and maddeningly inaccurate from attempt to attempt. For instance, a week after putting a ball high enough to give Funchess the opportunity to go up and get it, I watched from the student section as Denard threw a fade to Funchess that simply was not where it needed to be.

On the other hand, Denard executed a number of zippy passes down the middle, particularly to Drew Dileo, that make you wonder how one quarterback can look like Tom Brady on one play and Steven Threet on the next. This is probably a good place to say, for probably the millionth time, that we have what we have with Denard and yada yada yada.

To Denard's defense, he wasn't helped out very much by his esteemed colleagues, non-Dileo wideouts and offensive line alike. Although I don't put a majority of the blame for Toussaint's struggles on his own shoulders, 10 carries for 52 yards (9 for 14 if you excise the 38-yarder) is not a recipe for success. Toussaint, like Denard, was caught in the backfield several times (three times to be exact, plus two receptions that lost yardage), and on most of his touches there just wasn't anywhere to go. At this point, this isn't much to say that hasn't already been said re: Toussaint. Depending on whether or not the Buckeyes can improve between now and Michigan's trip to Columbus, the Wolverines won't have to face another above average defense again the rest of the way. As such, we will need to continue the policy of patience with regards to Toussaint's less than stellar output this season.

Michigan amassed only 326 yards of total offense, with Denard completing less than 50% of his passes and the ground game being essentially non-existent save for a big play or two. With that said, some good things did in fact happen when Michigan had the ball. For one, excluding the aforementioned relatively harmless interception, Michigan didn't turn it over once. Given what we saw in South Bend, that's no small feat.

Second, and I can't say this with enough emphasis or excitement: DREW DILEO. The Baton Rouge native came up big when Michigan's big name players generally did not. Dileo has quietly been one of Denard's favorite targets in clutch situations (3rd downs, late in games, etc.), and that was certainly the case on Saturday. Dileo racked up four huge receptions for 92 yards on the day, including: two catches on consecutive third down plays early in the second quarter; a 35-yarder that led to Michigan's second field goal; and, of course, Michigan's last offensive play of the game, a 21-yarder from the MSU 41 with only 18 seconds left on the clock.

For all of the ironic Internet snark and sarcastic Wes Welker comparisons, Dileo turned in a GRITTY performance, punching his ticket en route to the Decidedly Not Big Name Michigan Players Who Helped Propel Michigan To A Big Win Hall Of Fame (Sponsored by Jacob Stewart).

Michigan failed to reach the end zone, but when time was of the essence, Michigan made the plays it needed to make, especially on the heels of the epic collapse to Michigan's penultimate drive, where Michigan reached the MSU 25 before eventually being forced to punt with just under three minutes to go.

If you had told me two years ago that Michigan would win a game in 2012 scoring only 12 points--with Michigan's kickers going 4/4 on the day--I would have called you crazy right then and there. Well, crazy person, your world is now a reality. Dogs and cats are joining the same book clubs, and Taylor Martinez is the most efficient passer in the Big Ten.

The Defense

Speaking of crazy things...hey, defense! Michigan has not exactly faced any offensive juggernauts post-Alabama, but what this defense has been able to accomplish since then is still tremendous indeed. This defense is stocked with guys can do some things for us and this great community and the global education that you have here and accountability to all those tremendous things here at the University of Michigan.

Indeed, the Michigan D was accountable to the notion that giving up yards and points, like fumbling the football, is a concept as frightening as the fact that Shakespeare's canon and "Fifty Shades of Grey" are things that have been produced by beings of the same species (progress!).

For the fifth game in a row, the Michigan defense shut 'em down like LL Cool J. The Spartans only managed 304 yards of total offense, with Le'Veon Bell only accounting for 68 yards on 26 carries. Just to put it into perspective, MSU's longest rushing play of the day--and second longest play overall--came via Mike Sadler's fake punt run. Needless to say, MSU had just as much trouble moving the ball as we did. J Leman, take it away:

2012 Michigan State at Michigan 1st Half (via presserbot)


Unlike last year, Michigan's front held up well against MSU's line. Given who we had on the defensive line last year, you can go ahead and add this to the Museum of College Football Things That Make No Sense. Michigan's interior held up all game and the linebackers ate everything up, whether up the middle or on the edges.

The Spartans were forced to get their yards through the air, where Maxwell was actually more effective than expected. Maxwell turned in his best completion percentage since the Central Michigan game, going 21-34 for 192 yards and one touchdown. However, his only turnover on the day, a pick to Jordan Kovacs, led to three points on Michigan's ensuing drive.

With the ground game going nowhere and the box clogged with winged helmets, MSU OC Dan Roushar was forced to go to the Borges I'M GOING DEEP BRO school of thought, a plan that actually had some success. MSU went after recently de-dreaded J.T. Floyd throughout most of the game, then opting to target Courtney Avery after Raymon Taylor went out with an elbow injury.

Once again, Michigan came up big on a 3rd and short situation, stuffing Le'Veon Bell on 3rd and 1 in the second quarter right before Dan Conroy missed a 38-yard field goal (although it did look like Bell kind of just fell down or something on that play).

The Spartans were able to convert downfield here and there, but Floyd held up admirably throughout, especially when MSU elected to go after him on consecutive plays. Floyd even mixed it up a little bit in run support, pitching in four tackles on the day. This is encouraging given the types of offenses left on the schedule (Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State).

Other than a downfield completion here and there, the only big mistake by the D came on that reverse to Tony Lippett, where about three Wolverines had a chance to bring him down for a sizable loss only to see him escape to the Michigan 2, leading to the only touchdown of the day on the next play.

When it mattered, however, the Michigan defense stood tall in the end. MSU went all Weis on everyone, electing to pass on second down (and again on third), allowing Michigan the extra bit of time it ended up needing in order to get into field goal range.

As the darkness fell and the helmets began to gleam under the glow of the stadium lights, the defense was once again equal to the task before them. Amid the din they stood, inviolable.

The Special Teams
I'm just going to leave this here:

Michigan went 4/4 on field goals for the day. In addition to speaking glowingly about the defense, having field goal kickers that don't inspire existential dread is a thing that I'm still getting used to. Brendan Gibbons became Garrett Rivas redux in just one offseason, more evidence that Brady Hoke is basically a sorcerer.

It wasn't all sunny here, however. Michigan gave up a 31-yard ick return to Le'Veon Bell, and the Sadler fake punt, also known as "the least surprising fake punt ever," was a thing that happened. after stopping MSU on 3rd and 9, Sadler ran right for 26 yards, extending a drive that eventually yielded a field goal, putting MSU up 10-9.

Jeremy Gallon had a nifty 26-yard punt return, but other than that, the kick/punt reutrn game didn't have the opportunity to do much.

Miscellaneous Minutiae
  • Raymon Taylor injury. Via Ace, this is the play that knocked Taylor out of the game. Yeah...your elbow is not supposed to do that. Of course, Hoke called it a "boo boo" after the game, as he is wont to do. Let's hope that is actually the case, because Michigan's situation at corner will start to look a little dicey if he's out for an extended period of time. On the bright side, Michigan has the luxury of sliding an experienced guy like Courtney Avery into the game instead of some random completely unprepared freshman, which is nice.
  • This week in "Jake Ryan Drinks Your Milkshake, He Drinks It Up!" Ten tackles, 1 sack and a forced fumble for Mr. Ryan on Saturday. There are some good players out there, but if Ryan isn't an All-American then I don't know who is.
  • Finger Gunz. Others on the Michigan Internets have mentioned this, but Vincent Smith's somewhat out of nowhere 12-yard rush to start the last drive is an underrated play that I feel like no one will remember but might have been one of the most important plays of the game. It was Smith's only carry of the game, a week after sitting out the Illinois game entirely. The toughest little guy this side of the Mississippi definitely made it count. He is not a feature back, but he is a player that Michigan will miss next year, no question Jim.
  • 900. That's a lot of wins. However, be honest: nobody was rushing the field for that reason. I'm sure that 95% of the students that rushed the field didn't even know that this was Michigan's 900th win. I am decidedly on the "don't rush" side in this case, and not because "it's just Little Brother hurr durr." At the same time, the fact that I am tsk tsking this as someone only a year out of undergrad is kind of frightening. By next year, I'm sure I'll be yelling down in front at no one in particular. At this rate, I'll probably be one of those guys that wears headphones to listen to the radio broadcast while at the game. Oh man.
  • The Grand Scheme of Things. Don't get me wrong, finally getting the last remaining monkey off of Michigan's back was a tremendous and cathartic experience. Michigan is indeed "back" (i.e. is not terrible), but that doesn't mean that it's over for Michigan State. I don't think anyone, even the most optimistic MSU fans, was expecting the Spartans to churn out 10+ win seasons into perpetuity, but I feel confident in saying that MSU will continue to be a thorn in Michigan's side on the defensive side of the ball. If MSU can get some offensive linemen in there, look out. Then again, MSU it's been quite some time since
  • IN THE BIG HOUSE YEAH. You know that it has been a good afternoon when "In The Big House" becomes sort of enjoyable, albeit in an ironic way. However, it was another curious afternoon of music selection for the anonymous Big House DJ guy. I'm sorry, but playing Sweet Caroline at the end of a game like that makes no sense.
  • Carl Grapentine in the house, y'all. Somebody mentioned to me after the game that Grapentine said the words "Big Will Campbell" at some point during the game. Can anybody confirm this? If this happened then I definitely missed it, which would be a sad thing indeed. If even Carl Grapentine is dispensing with the gravitas, you know things have gotten pretty real. I for one am enjoying this 2012 iteration of Grapentine.
  • Fumbles. They're recovered randomly! Brennen Beyer and Jake Ryan forced fumbles by Bell and Larry Caper, respectively, in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, Michigan was unable to recover in either instance.
  • Weekly linking of MGoBlue's "Notes" aka "Little Sunshine Bullets." Reading this after a win is about as tremendous as my first Frita Batidos experience was yesterday. Of note: Desmond Morgan recorded a career high 11 tackles, Denard is 100 yards away from yet another 1,000+ yard season on the ground, and Michigan has not lost at home since the 2010 Wisconsin game.
  • Homefield advantage. Speaking of playing at home, this one wasn't quite as ridiculous as UTL was, but it was close. There is really no comparison between the Big House crowd pre-renovations and now. Also, I have to say that the introduction of the pom-poms (also known as "shakers" in PAWL country) has been a nice aesthetic touch, especially during cold weather games when most folks aren't wearing maize. The Big House will never be Tiger Stadium or anything, but I've been pretty impressed with the level of crowd noise this season and last. I guess that's what happens when you win.