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Top-10 games of the Jim Harbaugh Era, No. 5: Harbaugh earns his first win over MSU in 2016

Jabrill Peppers put on a show in this one.

Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

We’re entering the top five of our continuing series of the top-10 Michigan Wolverines games in the Jim Harbaugh era. Coming in at No. 5 is a good one, as Harbaugh got revenge on the Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing. A year prior ended in utter disaster, but this time it was a triumphant victory in a series of important games in a big 2016 season.

Season Significance: 7, Pre-Game Hype: 8

Everyone remembers the tragic ending of a fumbled snap on a punt in the Big House in 2015. It was maybe the lowest point for the Wolverines in my lifetime. They led most of the way and had that game in their grasp, but one mistake made it all slip away in an embarrassing fashion at home under the lights.

The Spartans would go on to an 11-1 regular season, a Big Ten Championship and a College Football Playoff appearance. This win gave them a jolt and helped them realize they were never truly out of games. That same grit helped them beat No. 2 Ohio State 17-14 and No. 4 Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Michigan ended the year with a loss to the Buckeyes. However, an impressive bowl win over the Florida Gators to end the season reinvigorated a fan base for the future of the program.

Then, in 2016, Michigan had all the momentum. The Wolverines cruised to a perfect 8-0 heading into East Lansing and were thirsting for revenge from what happened a year prior. On the other hand, the Spartans were drowning with five straight losses heading into the game as they tried to keep their head over the water to make a bowl game.

As is the custom in this interstate rivalry, there was a lot of juice heading into this matchup. Spartans fans continued to run their mouth about what had happened a year prior despite their putrid record. The meme of the Michigan fan with his hands on his head was trending all week, and the players and fans of Michigan had just about had enough.

Highlight Play Score: 7, Individual Performance: 9

Things didn’t start off well for Michigan. The Spartans marched all the way down the field on a 12-play, 75-yard drive, mostly coming on the ground from running back LJ Scott. It ate up nearly half of the first quarter and Michigan fans were reeling already thinking of what this game could turn into if things didn’t change.

Luckily, the Michigan offense had the defense’s back and quickly responded. After some big plays from De’Veon Smith and Eddie McDoom, the Wolverines were rolling into the red zone. Then, they pulled the wildcat out with Jabrill Peppers, who did exactly what Jabrill Peppers does:

The first quarter ended with the game knotted at seven and Michigan State was driving again. Instead of a long field goal attempt, the Spartans decided to go for it on 4th and a little more than a yard. But Peppers and the Michigan defense stepped up:

Right away, Michigan went back to the wildcat and caught the Spartan defense napping. Who other than Peppers carried the ball, but flipped it to a streaking McDoom on a reverse play that had everyone fooled. The Wolverines picked up 33:

The very next play, quarterback Wilton Speight found start tight end Jake Butt on a 26-yard post and the Wolverines were down to the one-yard line:

De’Veon Smith punched it in for a touchdown and momentum was now in the hands of the Wolverines, up 14-7.

Scott continued to have his way with the Michigan defense, pushing his way to Wolverine territory with 96 yards through the Spartans’ first three possessions. Michigan State was back on the board with a field goal thanks to him, putting the Spartans within four points.

Then, Michigan’s leading receiver started to take over. Amara Darboh picked up 59 yards on two receptions including this 43-yard catch deep down the field:

A promising drive resulted in only a field goal as the Wolverines regained a seven-point advantage.

Michigan’s swarming defense was now awake, as the Spartans lost 10 yards on three plays resulting in a punt. The offense took over and Peppers was back on the field picking up 15 yards on a read-option keeper out of the wildcat. The drive led to a 4th and 1 in the red zone. Like MSU earlier in the game, Michigan decided to go for it and Khalid Hill punched through for a first:

A few plays later, Smith ran right up the gut for a five-yard run and his second score of the game. Michigan took an astute 24-10 advantage.

Tyler O’Connor came out firing with just 33 seconds left in the half and needing 72 yards to score. It wound up being a monumental mistake, as he was hit while he threw and Jourdan Lewis came up with the interception:

The Wolverines would get a field goal out of it, making it a three-possession game. Michigan went into the half with a 27-10 advantage and also got the ball out of the half.

Unfortunately, in a minute that this could have turned into a blowout, Speight had a moment of weakness. Darian Hicks picked him off in plus territory and flipped the field. Suddenly, it was a new opportunity for the Spartans to get back in it.

Scott got the bulk of the carries and a Peppers defensive pass interference put the Michigan State offense inside the two-yard line. But Michigan’s defense held strong on the goal line and stuffed Scott on four straight rushing attempts, including this fourth-down:

For the second time, the Spartans had turned it over on downs and Michigan responded well. Speight found Darboh down the field for 39 yards and the Wolverines were already at midfield. Thanks to a couple runs, they were in field goal range and Kenny Allen kicked through a 46-yarder to go up 30-10.

The Spartans took over needing some points and transitioned to the backup, Damion Terry. Scott broke free for a 40-yard gain and Michigan State had life. Inside the 10-yard line, State ran the option and the pitch from Terry to Scott was off-kilter, resulting in a massive loss. However, the Spartans would once again come away with nothing as Michael Geiger missed a 34-yarder. It was missed opportunity after missed opportunity for the home team.

After a Michigan three-and-out, Brian Lewerke came in under center and lead an impressive drive where he threw for 64-yards on three plays, including a 20-yard touchdown pass. With 7:31 to go, Michigan State cut the lead to two possessions.

Another quick Michigan drive gave the Spartans a chance. Lewerke was hot and moving the ball with his legs and his arm. He carried the team on his back inside the red zone once again. On 4th and 5, the pressure was on, and who else would make the play but Peppers?

It wound up being a game-changing play, as the Michigan offense was nowhere to be found in a close-out attempt.

The Spartans had the ball again with 25 seconds left and O’Connor was back in the game. Michigan had two 15-yard penalties on the drive as the game was out of hand and Michigan State wasn’t just going down. They scored a touchdown to make the score 30-23 and weirdly went for a meaningless two-point conversion.

Peppers was having none of it as Mike Dantonio called for another option. The quarterback pitch was off again and Peppers picked it up and was off to the races:

It was an emphatic exclamation mark on a stellar performance for Peppers and a culture-defining win for the Wolverines. Michigan’s best player finished with five carries for 24 yards and a touchdown. He also had two tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and the two-point conversion in a performance where he did a little bit of everything.

Historical Significance: 9

Can you imagine a world where the Wolverines lost the way they did in 2015 and then coming back to lose to a 2-5 Michigan State team in year two of the Harbaugh era? It was not outside of the realm of possibility. Rankings and records don’t matter in this series. The team that wins is the one that makes the biggest plays. Three turnovers on downs in Michigan territory for the home team is what did them in. Had they converted, especially late in the game, this one could have been much different.

Instead, Harbaugh earned his first win over one of Michigan’s two biggest rivals. It was an important win for his legacy, this season and the history of the rivalry. The Wolverines were back on track and stayed undefeated one week longer.

Total Score: 40/50

The importance of this game can’t be understated. The only Michigan head coaches that started 0-2 against MSU are Rich Rodriguez and Bump Elliott. That is an infamous group Harbaugh did not want his name attached to. The scrutiny was already unbearable and it would have been even worse with a loss.

Thankfully, we never had to hear any of that. And while Harbaugh’s record against Michigan State is back to sub-.500, this was his first notch in the win column and it was well deserved. The play of the big names in this one was the difference — Peppers dominated both sides of the ball and Darboh had a whopping eight catches for 156 yards. The Wolverines prevailed, their season was still without a blemish and hopes of conquering Ohio State and getting to Indy were still alive.


Check out the other games in this series released every Sunday:

No. 10: Michigan escapes Bloomington in 2OT thriller in 2015

No. 9: Michigan tops Florida in 2016 Citrus Bowl

No. 8: Michigan throttles Penn State in 2018

No. 7: Michigan tops Wisconsin in Top 15 showdown

No. 6: Michigan destroys Notre Dame in 2019