ANN ARBOR, Mich. – We’ve reached November, so I had a hunch this story was coming.
It’s become an annual tradition: Michigan football drops a big game to a rival, forfeiting its chance to take control of the Big Ten East and earn a year of bragging rights.
The Wolverines went into East Lansing on Saturday ranked No. 6 in the country. Both teams were 7-0, but Michigan, despite playing on the road, spent the entire week as the betting favorite.
For the second season in a row, Mel Tucker took down Jim Harbaugh, and this time, there was a lot more on the line.
A year ago, Michigan State went into an empty Big House and beat Michigan on the back of Rocky Lombardi. The Northern Illinois quarterback who lost in Ann Arbor by 53 points earlier this season threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns en route to a Spartans victory.
Fans thought it couldn’t get more painful than that. They were wrong.
Unlike last year, this time around, Michigan actually has a strong defense and running game. Sure, there have been questions about Cade McNamara and the passing attack, but otherwise, the Wolverines are rock solid.
So even though this year’s loss is nowhere near as shocking, the stakes -- and the way it played out -- made it all the more painful.
Michigan outplayed Michigan State for the majority of the day, passing for 406 yards and out-gaining the Spartans by a total of 552 to 395.
The Wolverines led 10-0 before the end of the first quarter, 23-14 at halftime and 30-14 midway through the third quarter.
McNamara was excellent, carving up the Michigan State defense through the air. But four of Michigan’s promising scoring drives ended with field goals instead of touchdowns, and that left the door open.
Michigan once again found a way to beat itself in a big game. Blake Corum dropped what would have been an easy touchdown pass on the second drive. J.J. McCarthy fumbled a snap on an exchange that gave MSU a short field to score the game-winning touchdown. Cornelius Johnson and Mike Sainristil both dropped passes in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter.
In all, it was an effort that validated Michigan’s 7-0 record, and if not for all the self-inflicted errors, it would have been 8-0. Instead, it’s just the latest chapter in a book of Michigan football letdowns.
Michigan’s inability to win the big game is well-documented. Nobody needs to hear more about that, so let’s look forward.
The Wolverines still have two tremendously difficult games ahead: at Penn State and the finale against Ohio State. But if they aren’t careful, that first loss could compound into two this weekend against Indiana.
For the first time, Harbaugh is going to see how the 2021 team responds to a loss. In 2016, for example, Michigan dropped three of its final four games after starting the season 9-0.
Indiana smashed Michigan last year and took Michigan State to the brink three weeks ago. There’s still plenty for the Wolverines to play for, but they have to put Saturday behind them quickly.
In terms of the Big Ten East, those dreams hinge entirely on the Ohio State game. Michigan either needs Michigan State to lose twice or it needs to beat Ohio State and come out on top of a three-way tie (if the Spartans lose in Columbus).
Even then, it appears Ohio State would win the tiebreaker due to the record of its Big Ten West opponents, but that could still change in the coming weeks.
This is one of the most devastating losses of the Harbaugh era because it came against a rival and the game should have been won. But it’s not the end of the line for this Michigan team -- not yet.