The Paul Bunyan Trophy is back in Ann Arbor for the first time in three seasons. In its 32-23 victory, Michigan dominated the greater part of the rivalry road game.
The Wolverines arrived in East Lansing on Saturday as 24.5-point favorites. The nine-point margin gives the illusion the game was close, but Michigan dominated from its second offensive drive until the final eight minutes of the game.
Close or not, Michigan faced its first true road test inside Spartan Stadium, outlasting its in-state rival en route to going home undefeated.
Wilton Speight has taken the next step
Redshirt sophomore Wilton Speight was a serviceable quarterback for the first six games of the season. He got his job done, but he didn’t do anything spectacular. And while Speight doesn’t have the legs, or stats, of Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, he displayed that he can lead a team to a championship.
Speight didn’t get a touchdown Saturday, but he completed 16 of 25 passes for 244 yards, a performance that warrants confidence going forward.
It was that throw to senior tight end Jake Butt that led to Michigan taking the lead. Speight made throws like that all game for the second straight week.
Michigan scored inside the 5-yard line on each of its three touchdowns, each set up by throws from Speight.
Speight did throw an interception in the beginning of the second half, though. Michigan could have gone ahead by 24 at that point, but when he tried to throw to Michigan’s shortest running back, Karan Higdon, on a wheel route, Darian Hicks read it, picked it and brought it all the way to the 30-yard line. That’s the one mistake Speight made all game, and it was one of the better plays you’ll see from a college defensive back.
I’m not saying Speight is a Heisman contender, or even that he would earn any trophies necessarily. What I’m saying is that Alabama’s championship teams have had quarterbacks that didn’t pad the stat sheet, but who did make throws needed to win. This is Speight’s offense, and, if he continues to play like he has the past two weeks, he can lead this team all the way.
Offense keeps getting better
Michigan compiled 436 yards of offense on Saturday without getting creative during the fourth quarter. In hindsight, Jim Harbaugh probably wouldn’t have been so conservative in that final quarter, and Michigan would have likely been en route to covering the spread.
The offense went out there ahead 30-10 when it decided to keep running up the middle, and run off the clock. But it’s what they did on earlier drives that ultimately mattered.
Michigan didn’t punt the ball until there were fewer than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. That’s on the road against its biggest rival.
The biggest takeaway from the offense, outside of Speight, is how well Amara Darboh performed. He made two one-handed receptions, one that made a big third-down conversion.
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) October 31, 2016
Darboh, who had a career-high 165 yards receiving, gives the Wolverines another option on offense along with Jehu Chesson, Jake Butt, Jabrill Peppers and Eddie McDoom.
In its game against Wisconsin, Michigan had to rely on its defense until Speight was finally able to complete that pass to win it in the fourth quarter. The offense, though, continues to get more consistent –and has scored more points than Ohio State during the past two weeks.
Defense bent, but it’s still elite
Michigan, even after giving up 400 yards for the first time this season, remains the nation’s top total defense by giving up just 3.98 yards per play. But the best point you can make: half of Michigan State’s 401 yards came in garbage time. Just counting the final nine minutes of the game, MSU put up 198 yards when they were behind by 20 points. Michigan punted to them three times in a row, and they drove the length of the field each time. While, yes, the Wolverines can’t shut down like that late in a game again … to say that Michigan’s defense isn’t still the nation’s best would be a big stretch. Michigan only allowed 34 passing yards, a 28-percent completion percentage and 10 points when there was 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Had the offense not been surprisingly conservative, then it keeps Michigan State off the field and likely wins 30-10 or 30-17.
But, nonetheless, Michigan has been of the best tackling teams I’ve seen in college in years, but they didn’t showcase that in the final minutes. They missed about eight tackles in the final quarter, seemingly ready for the game to end. The defense will have hiccups. As good as it played the first 50 minutes should still reassure everyone it’s the best defensive unit in football.
As for one of the bigger, or biggest, reasons why Michigan State drove down the field … let’s just say the referees weren’t quick to throw a yellow flag that late in what was a blowout game, as the pictures below showcase four of, by my count, 12 missed holding calls in the final 10 minutes.
Lets talk about the uncalled holding penalties in the 4Q of the MSU-UM game. pic.twitter.com/m8Z6DzRxli
— Shawn L. Martin (@ShawnLMartin) October 30, 2016
Senior defensive end Taco Charlton looked to record four sacks during the final minutes, but he was held each time.
LJ Scott’s 139-yard day is the first time a player rushed for more than 100 yards against Michigan. Michigan’s insanely good rush defense met its biggest challenger Saturday. Nonetheless, it shut down the Big Ten’s two best backs in Saquon Barkley and Corey Clement, and there’s no reason it can’t shut down every back it sees going forward.
It all boils down to this: Michigan gave up fewer than 200 yards in non-garbage time Saturday on the road in a rivalry game. Therefore, it will more than likely allow under 200 yards a couple more times before hitting the road for Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 26.
Michigan is really, really good. Michigan State is really, really bad. But Michigan State was playing for everything. That was their Super Bowl. A chance to spoil Michigan’s undefeated season, and playoff chances, in front of its home crowd. That’s as big as it gets. Michigan State played its best game offensively, and Scott had by far his best performance.
Michigan didn’t cover the spread, but it dominated. Take away just the final five minutes, including a touchdown with literally one single second on the clock, and Michigan wins by double-digits another week.
The facts: Michigan is 8-0, possesses possibly the most balanced team in the country, and has the talent to take this season all the way to 15-0.