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Top-10 games of the Jim Harbaugh Era, No. 3: Michigan’s defense suffocates MSU in 2018

The Wolverines *stomped* the Spartans.

Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

We’re down to the top three games of the Jim Harbaugh era, and this one is going to be remembered fondly for a long time. The Michigan Wolverines were in the middle of their “Revenge Tour” where they played three consecutive games against top-25 opponents who had beaten them a year prior. This year was a different story, and Michigan’s defense made a statement against one of their biggest rivals on their own turf. Let’s take a look back at what was a dominating performance by the Wolverines in 2018.

Season Significance: 9, Pre-Game Hype: 10

Michigan was on a six-game winning streak and had just taken down No. 15 Wisconsin a week prior. After losing two of their first five games to unranked opponents, the Spartans upset No. 8 Penn State in Happy Valley. Suddenly, a 4-2 Michigan State squad was ranked as the No. 24 team in the country despite having a +23 point differential in six games. With the game being in East Lansing, there was plenty of chirp that Michigan State could go back to back weeks upsetting top-10 opponents.

I heard a lot of it from Sparty fans throughout the week, I’m sure you did too.

Then, breaking news flashed in front of the screen and we were left with one of the peak moments in the history of this rivalry. Devin Bush was warming up on the field as the Spartans did their walk from end zone to end zone with arms locked. Bush took the whole team head-on, refusing to move. Take a look:

Shock was shot across the country and if it wasn’t already, this game was must-see TV for every college football fan around. What transpired after the first whistle was an embodiment of what Bush did to the Spartan logo — absolute destruction.

Highlight Play Score: 10, Individual Performance: 7

We had highlights in this game before kickoff with Bush shredding up the logo with his cleats. After a statement like that, the Wolverines would need to back it up on the field. The defense did just that.

On Michigan State’s first possession, it had the ball right around midfield and was threatening. But Josh Uche blew past the offensive lineman and picked up his first sack of the game on 3rd and 7:

The Michigan offense stalled on its first drive, but not on the second. Shea Patterson dinked and dunked his way to midfield setting up an important 3rd and long at midfield. Nico Collins played tip-drill and made a phenomenal catch that picked up the first down:

On the very next play, Patterson found Nick Eubanks deep down the left sideline for a 25-yard pickup and inside the Michigan State 25-yard line. A few plays later, on 3rd and 5 at the 6-yard line, Collins was open again over the middle as the Wolverines took the lead, 7-0:

The Spartan's offense went a whole lot of nowhere the rest of the half. Their longest drive was 13 yards and they had a grand total of 44 yards in the two quarters. Michigan’s offense wasn’t much to write home about either. In the waning moments of the second quarter, Karan Higdon broke loose for a 38-yard run:

Quinn Nordin would line up for a 36-yard field goal, but missed it, keeping the score at 7-0.

With under a minute and a half to go, Brian Lewerke and the Michigan State offense would attempt one more drive starting from deep in their own territory. Uche and the Michigan defense were having none of it:

It was Uche’s second sack of the first half, and Michigan went into the half with only a touchdown lead.

The Wolverines’ offense continued to struggle to open up the second half. After going backwards, Chris Evans fumbled the ball inside Michigan’s 10-yard line. The Spartans snatched it up and Lewerke found Darrell Stewart on a 4-yard touchdown pass to knot the game at 7.

A similar ending happened on the Wolverines’ next drive. They even got second life on their after the Spartans muffed a punt and Michigan recovered. But deep inside Michigan State territory, Patterson had butterfingers and lost the ball and the Spartans took possession. Michigan squandered plenty of opportunities with two fumbles and a missed field goal, so despite debilitating defense, the game was tied at 7.

Late in the third quarter, both teams were desperate for that breakout play that would likely be the deciding factor in this game. Both offenses were anemic until Donovan Peoples-Jones made a five-star play, the Paul Bunyan way:

The pose in the end zone after a burning his corner for a 79-yard touchdown was the moment of this game, and DPJ’s career in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines had new life and regained a 14-7 advantage.

Sparty was still going nowhere. Lewerke’s final six attempts of the game all fell incomplete. Meanwhile, Michigan’s offense ran with the momentum of its previous drive by scoring again. The Wolverines milked nearly seven minutes off the clock on a 13-play, 84-yard game-clinching drive. And it all started with a pass that should have been a pick-six, but instead was a first down pick-up by Zach Gentry:

Higdon put on his work shoes and ran for 33 yards on the drive. He had 144 yards on 33 carries in this one. But the biggest moment was a 4th and 2 conversion by Patterson on a read-option keeper that kept the drive alive:

Ben Mason finished off the drive the only way he knew how. He bulldozed his way through the Spartan defense for a 5-yard touchdown run, giving Michigan the 21-7 lead.

Rocky Lombardi came in for the Spartans at quarterback in the final moments of the game, and Michigan State actually threatened to score. After making the pre-game statement by stomping on the logo, Bush backed it up on the field with a huge sack:

Michigan’s defense earned a sack on the next play as well, totaling four in the game. The unit held Michigan State to a total of 94 yards. That’s six less than they had on their pre-game walk across the field. Brian Lewerke was an abhorrent 5-for-25, and the Spartans rushing attack led by LJ Scott had only 15 yards on 23 carries.

Historical Significance: 9

This was an all-time game between these two squads. The top-25 matchup, Bush marching on the Spartan logo, DPJ Bunyaning in the end zone, the Michigan defense dominating — it has all the makeup of an instant classic performance.

Bush and the Michigan defense backed up every bit of grit and determination they showed prior to the game. The Revenge Tour was still alive and well. This one will be a game that is remembered for quite some time, especially in all the trolling that happens between these two programs.

Total Score: 45/50

This game is actually tied for second on the list but wound up as No. 3 based on our tiebreaking system. Prior to 2021, this was the biggest win of Jim Harbaugh’s career. His previously poor track record against Michigan State and Ohio State, particularly on the road, was put a little less into question following this win.

And it wasn’t just the win, it was the way they did it. The Spartans had no answer for Michigan’s defense all day long. It was like a big brother not even giving little brother a chance.

Even with the way things went down to end the year, this game deserves every bit of it’s spot on this list. The Revenge Tour was one of the best times in my life to be a Michigan football fan, and only two moments in the Jim Harbaugh Era top it and this performance.

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

No. 5: Harbaugh earns his first win over MSU in 2016

No. 4: Michigan tops Wisconsin in 2016 top-10 game