ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Shea Patterson took the snap, he rolled to his left and he found a wide open Cornelius Johnson streaking into the end zone for a late Michigan touchdown against heated rival Michigan State.
In past seasons, that might have been a Big Ten- or even playoff-altering play. But this year, it was just the Wolverines piling on a rival that as recently as five years ago pushed them around like it was nothing.
Michigan didn’t just beat Michigan State on Saturday. The Wolverines were never even tested as two programs trending in opposite directions continued down their respective paths. For Michigan, it was the sixth win in seven games. For MSU, it was an unprecedented fifth-straight loss.
It’s amazing how quickly things can change in college football. Remember when Michigan played in East Lansing back-to-back years in 2013 and 2014 due to Big Ten division realignment? Those games might have been closer on the scoreboard, but the Spartans were every bit as dominant then as Michigan was Saturday. The Wolverines infamously rushed for minus 48 yards in 2013. In 2014, a 3-5 Michigan team limped out of Spartan Stadium after being out-gained 446-186.
When the 2014 game went final, Michigan State had won six of seven against Michigan. MSU would make it seven of eight in Jim Harbaugh’s first year.
One of the worst stretches in Michigan football history coincided with an historic run by Mark Dantonio at Michigan State. That let to blowout wins in 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014. Michigan never really had a chance in any of those games.
That’s exactly how it felt Saturday, except the tables had turned.
For the second year in a row, Michigan completely overpowered Michigan State. Patterson picked apart the MSU secondary at will, throwing for a career-high 384 yards and four touchdowns. Michigan was better in the trenches, better on special teams, faster in space. The Wolverines scored on an unfathomable eight straight drives to end the game, save for a kneel-down with 17 seconds remaining.
Brian Lewerke and the Michigan State offense put together a 60-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter and got shut down for the final 45 minutes, mustering just a third-quarter field goal when the game was already in hand.
Michigan State once punched in an extra touchdown with 28 seconds remaining to pile on Michigan in 2014. Jim Harbaugh wasn’t Michigan’s coach then, but he remembers. The aforementioned pass from Patterson to Johnson came with 2:33 left on the clock and Michigan up by 27 points. It wasn’t necessary, but it was symbolic.
After years of getting bullied by Dantonio’s teams, Michigan is back on top of this state.
It’s not just the fact that Michigan has won by a combined 48 points the last two seasons, or that it outgained MSU 862-314 in yardage. It’s the feeling. The optics. While Michigan has established itself as a defensive powerhouse that regularly competes near the top of the Big Ten, Dantonio’s teams are just... off. They’re missing something they used to have.
During Michigan State’s run atop the conference, the Spartans were intimidating. They were never out of a game. There was always a sense that those guys had something up their sleeves, even when they were down.
On Saturday, there was never really any doubt that Michigan would win. Michigan State wasn’t competitive against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. It blew a 25-point lead the week prior against Illinois.
If not for Dantonio’s history of coaching his best games against Michigan, everyone would have expected a blowout Saturday in Ann Arbor. It’s telling that that’s how the rivalry played out.
It would be a classic Dantonio move to return in 2020 and post another 10-win season after everyone on both sides of the rivalry writes him off this week. But more so than ever, it doesn’t look like he has an answer.
“It’s not over,” Dantonio tweeted in 2017, his last victory over Michigan. “It’ll never be over. It’s just getting started.”
For all Spartans, “it’s not over, it’ll never be over, it’s just getting started” #SpartansWill— Mark Dantonio (@DantonioMark) December 4, 2017
Now, Michigan players are the ones doing the talking.
“I was telling them to go home,” Michigan safety Josh Metellus said after the game. “It was just time for them to leave. They didn’t deserve to be in our stadium.”
There’s not much Dantonio and his players can say back. For a tenure that thrived on pride and toughness, that’s almost as telling as the results on the field.