ANN ARBOR, Mich. — There were certainly tense moments in the final minutes of Michigan’s 32-23 win Saturday at Michigan State.
On the Spartans’ final drive of the game, No. 2 Michigan (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) took a pair of penalties that helped move the Spartans to the Michigan 5-yard-line, and the Wolverines couldn’t come up with a defensive stand that would help them maintain a double-digit lead. Instead, quarterback Tyler O’Connor found Donnie Corley for a touchdown that cut Michigan’s lead to 30-23, but Jabrill Peppers recovered O’Connor’s fumble on the 2-point conversion and ran it back for a safety — and clinched the win.
Saturday, however, was Michigan’s second-closest margin of victory this season. The only game tighter was when the Wolverines defeated No. 11 Wisconsin 14-7 on Oct. 1. Against the Spartans, Michigan receiver Amara Darboh had a career day in receiving with 165 yards and Peppers continued to display his versatility, playing on offense, defense and special teams.
But the win against the Spartans (2-6, 0-5) exposed a few of Michigan’s flaws, particularly on defense, which struggled to manage Michigan State’s opening drive and its final drive, which both resulted in touchdowns.
Here are our grades for Michigan following its win at Michigan State, on a scale from one star to five:
Offense (4 stars)
Wilton Speight continues to remain consistent at quarterback, and Darboh reaped the benefits. Darboh led all receivers with 165 yards on eight catches, while Speight finished 16-for-25 passing for 244 yards and was intercepted once.
De’Veon Smith had his first two-touchdown game since September 2015, when he scored three rushing touchdowns in a 35-7 win against Oregon State. Michigan’s rushers were pedestrian at best on Saturday, finishing with only 192 yards — and no rusher had more than 53 yards (Eddie McDoom, who had two carries for 53 yards, one a 33-yard carry). Michigan, however, asserted itself in the first half with long-yardage plays, averaging close to 10 yards a play during the first half.
Defense (3 stars)
Despite stopping Michigan State three times on fourth down, the defense showed its vulnerability on Michigan State’s first drive and then in the second half, particularly in the fourth quarter. That defense, which allowed a scant average of 207 yards in its first eight games, gave up a season-high 401 yards, including 253 in the second half.
Michigan did not maintain its intensity and, on a late-game drive by Michigan State helped by two penalties against Michigan — a personal foul against Chris Wormley on first and 10 at the Michigan 40 and a pass interference call on Jourdan Lewis on second and 10 at the Michigan 15 — nearly allowed the Spartans back into the game. Surprisingly, though, Michigan remains the No. 1 defense in the nation, allowing 231.3 yards a game. (Florida is second at 239.4)
Special teams (4 stars)
Kenny Allen has found his form again at kicker, while also handling punting and kickoffs for Michigan. Allen went 3-for-3 on field goals, including a 45-yard kick 18 seconds into the fourth quarter. While Michigan State kicker Michael Geiger made a 52-yard attempt in the second quarter, he missed a 34-yard attempt in the fourth quarter, one of two conversion attempts Michigan State missed.
The second? O’Connor’s fumble on a two-point conversion attempt that followed Michigan State’s touchdown with one second left in regulation, and Peppers’ recovery for the safety.
Coaching (3 stars)
Don Brown’s defense — and Don Brown’s coaching — was lauded all week, as the Wolverines entered Saturday with the nation’s top defense. Yet with 37 seconds left, the Wolverines struggled to put away a team that entered the game with five straight losses and used three quarterbacks in 60 minutes Saturday.
One player dominate its first drive, Spartans running back LJ Scott. He led all rushers with 22 carries for 139 yards and a touchdown and touched the ball on 11 of 12 plays on that opening scoring drive. Missed tackles plagued the Wolverines, creating an inability to stop the run. Michigan gave up more than 200 yards rushing for the second time this season.
Overall (3.5 stars)
If Michigan had kept its foot on the gas pedal, maybe it would have earned higher marks. But the Wolverines allowed a feisty, scrappy team with something to prove back into a game despite taking a 20-point lead in the first minute of the fourth quarter.
In the first half, Michigan allowed Michigan State just 148 yards and nine first downs. In the second half, Michigan State had 253 yards and 14 first downs, and scored a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including a late-game drive in which Michigan got called for two penalties for 25 yards.