Wolverine Watch: Setting Up The Big One
Michigan set the stage, and college football’s brightest lights flashed on in the Great Lakes State.
The 7-0 Wolverines meet the 7-0 Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing, seven days hence. It’s always a grudge match. Now it’s a grudge match flush with potentially massive implications.
Big Ten title? Playoffs? Everything remains on the line, when the Wolverines and Spartans swap insults and helmet paint inside Spartan Stadium.
Michigan locked its lingering path to perfection in a 33-7 romp over Northwestern. The Wolverines again provided some Mylanta Moments on the way to victory, but for the seventh consecutive time in a stunner of a 2021 start, stayed unblemished.
Now, it gets as serious as a cup punch under the pile.
“All focus is there,” head coach Jim Harbaugh said, regarding the backyard brawl. “You walk through that door, and you’re going to answer some questions about this game … but it’s on to that game right now.”
In the end, there wasn’t any doubt against Northwestern. The Wolverines nearly doubled the Wildcats’ yardage total, 457-233, piled up 28 first downs to Northwestern’s 10, outrushed the visitors, 294-100, and left NU looking as lost as a wandering band of Buckeyes in an Evanston library.
They pounded out precisely the sort of win they sought — after a while. But along the way, they mixed in enough bogged-down bumbles to cause more than a little mid-game angst.
Harbaugh noted the Wolverines left a little “meat on the bone” when it came to pulling away from the Wildcats. For a time, it looked like a freezer’s full for the winter.
“We shot ourselves in the foot a few times, especially when we got inside the 5-yard line,” Harbaugh said.
The Wolverines continued their troubling pattern of making the least out of an advantage around the half. They built a 10-0 lead with just 2:33 remaining in the opening 30 minutes. That looked safe enough, with Northwestern managing a miserable 38 total yards through the first 27:27.
Then came the cave-in, an inexplicable turn that radio analyst and former U-M All-American Dan Dierdorf called “revolting.”
The Wildcats’ Evan Hull popped free up the middle on a 75-yard touchdown bolt, after his team spent the rest of the first half accumulating minus-seven yards on the ground. Michigan answered with a drive from its own 23 to the Northwestern 3, but came away empty-handed as a palm tree-seeking Eskimo.
Cade McNamara flipped a toss to sophomore wide receiver Mike Sainristil that wasn’t getting the Wolverines into the end zone. Things turned worse when Sainristil put the ball on the turf and the Wildcats dove on it.
Once again, Michigan fans buckled up for a wild ride. Despite running 53 first-half plays on offense and gaining 267 yards, versus Northwestern’s 19 plays for 113, the Wolverines led by a chilling three points, 10-7.
Against Rutgers, the uh-oh involved a scoreless second half by the Wolverines. At Wisconsin, a 13-3 lead became 13-10 on a late-first-half Badgers’ drive.
At Nebraska, the Cornhuskers ran wild in the second half after stumbling to a 13-0 first-half deficit. If the Wolverines were playing for drama, they’d feature winged helmets full of Oscars, not footballs.
But the second half against Northwestern featured a 23-0 blue wave, full of big plays — a blocked punt by sophomore wideout Cornelius Johnson and an acrobatic interception by redshirt freshman cornerback D.J. Turner, both setting up touchdowns. Combine that with Michigan’s running game and defense, the latter one play away from a shutout.
“Really good,” Harbaugh assessed. “They were really determined to do that. Four out of five drives to start the second half, the offense put points on the board. Three of the four were touchdowns.”
Once Northwestern eventually fell in line, thoughts drifted to the showdown that will captivate the state — and this time, the nation.
Michigan and Michigan State last played in a legitimate undefeated showdown back in 1999. The Wolverines then dug enough of a hole in East Lansing that even the greatest quarterback in the history of the game couldn’t dig them out.
This time, forget the big names, insisted redshirt freshman defensive end David Ojabo. The Spartans might as well come in with athletic tape over their jersey ID.
“Personally, on behalf of the defense, we always preach a nameless, faceless opponent,” Ojabo said. “We just have to go out there and execute, do what we’ve got to do. We can’t start weighing games. We’ve just got to go out there and do our job.”
That’s fine, in theory. But it changes the moment the Spartans try to leave somebody faceless on the field. And this time, there’s a big pile of chips on the table.
Not to mention, there remains the pile of cow chips of which last year’s game in Ann Arbor consisted.
“We don’t really dwell on the past,” sophomore safety Daxton Hill said. “We just focus on what we control right now. That’s Michigan State, next week.”
Somebody’s going to control it, for sure. Whoever does becomes a national top-five challenger for all that college football can offer.
There will be a rumble to the state of Michigan this week, and not from an earthquake. This Richter Scale measures sass, swagger and scintillating success, with more than a dash of savage animosity tossed in.
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