Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, October 29, 2016
Let?s go ahead and get this out of the way: Michigan is clearly the best team in the Big Ten. Heck, the Wolverines may be the best in the nation.
So much, so fast for a program that is in just its second season under Jim Harbaugh and ranks No. 2 in the land. Few could have envisioned such a rapid ascent for Michigan. But, here are the Wolverines, all bright, shiny and thinking big after making another notch in its belt with a convincing 32-23 win at Michigan State, the Wolverines? first triumph over MSU since a 12-10 decision in 2012.
"They were trying to ruin our season. They felt like, if they beat us, even though they've lost a lot of games their season would still be a success. We wanted to take that from them," Michigan jack-of-all trades Jabrill Peppers said. "When you come into another man's house, beat them and leave with a trophy, that makes you feel good as a man."
No doubt, Michigan appears to be very manly as it sits 8-0 for the first time since 2006 and just the fourth time in the past 40 years (1986, 1997, 2006, 2016). And U-M's 5-0 record in Big Ten play is the best start to conference play for Michigan since its 6-0 start in 2007.
?I thought our guys played really good, solid football and made big plays,? said Harbaugh, sporting glasses that looked a lot like the ones Woody Hayes used to wear for the second consecutive week. ?That?s the way I look at it, I was really proud of them and really proud of the way they played. They performed admirably and got the 'W.' Did they play with composure and poise, I thought so yes.?
They also played very well, too. There were some questions about Michigan?s ability to run the ball early this season. The Wolverines often had to manufacture a rushing attack with jet sweeps and other such ?gimmicky? plays. But now, Michigan is much more adept simply lining up and running the ball, playing good old-fashioned power football behind a veteran line that keeps improving.
That was on display Saturday, as the Wolverines ran 42 times for 192 yards, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Michigan entered the game ranked No. 2 in Big Ten rushing (257.1 ypg).
There isn?t a dominant running back, as the Wolverines give multiple players carries each game with Karan Higdon, De?Veon Smith, Chris Evans and Ty Isaac the primary ball carriers. And, of course, Peppers gets in on the act.
Michigan totaled 436 yards of offense at East Lansing, the sixth time this year that the Wolverines have registered more than 400 yards. U-M totaled 192 yards on the ground, including three touchdowns. Michigan has had at least one rushing touchdown in each game this season. And Michigan held the Spartans to just 34 yards passing in the first half and 148 yards of total offense, including their 75-yard scoring drive on the opening series of the game. Want more? Michigan has scored points in 42-of-46 red-zone chances this season (6-of-6 at MSU) with 33 touchdowns and nine field goals.
Peppers added to his vast resume on this day, running five times for 24 yards and a TD. He also had a highlight-reel play, running back a failed two-point conversion for the final score of the day. He had seven tackles (one sack) and a fumble recovery to go along with five rushes for 24 yards and a touchdown on offense.
"We knew we were going to get their best game, we get everybody's best game," Peppers said of MSU, which had won six of the last seven in this battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. "They don't like us, we don't like them.
"This one, we had it marked since last year. We just wanted to come in here and bring Paul back."
Paul is back in Ann Arbor. And he may be there a while. Since losing in stunning fashion last year to Michigan State, Michigan is 12-1. The Spartans? They are 7-7. It has been a stupefying change in fortunes for these intense rivals. MSU is 2-6 overall and 0-5 in the Big Ten, in peril of missing the postseason a year after winning the Big Ten and being in the playoff. Michigan State did not complete a pass in the second or third quarters, as the Spartans have lost six in a row and need to win out to become bowl eligible.
?We have to convert on our opportunities,? said Michigan State?s Mark Dantonio.? When you play a good football team, you can?t miss on opportunities. You have to make good on opportunities. A lot of that is play-calling, a lot of that is my decision making. A lot of that is execution. That?s why I always say it?s all inclusive. It?s all inclusive. But at the end, I?m proud of our guys, I?m proud that we came out to play.?
It wasn?t enough vs. this Michigan defense, a unit that makes the 2016 Wolverines so formidable. Michigan is ranked in the top four of 10 defensive categories nationally. In fact, U-M leads college football in five categories: scoring defense, total defense, pass defense, first downs allowed and third down defense.
"We could have (played) way better, the game shouldn't have been as close as it was," Wolverine cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. "We want to try to dominate everybody, it doesn't matter who it is. We want to finish games."
The Wolverines are second in the country in pass efficiency defense, third in sacks and red zone defense and list fourth in rushing defense and tackles for loss. But the unit allowed 401 yards and 217 on the ground.
?We treat every game like it?s a big game, we treat every game like it?s the championship game and fortunately our guys made the play today and the credit goes to the players, also the assistant coaches did a tremendous job,? said Harbaugh.? Really proud of everybody, all our staff and now it?s onward.?
Indeed, onward to bigger things. Maybe a Big Ten title, playoff bid and national title.