How Michigan football turned near-disaster into dominant win over Michigan State

Wolverines hold in-state rival to 94 total yards of offense

Chase Winovich and Bryan Mone celebrate a win over Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - For anybody tuned into the Michigan vs. Michigan State game Saturday, there was no question which was the better team.

The Wolverines never trailed, rarely left the field on offense and finished with more than a 300-yard advantage in the game.

But being the better team hasn't always been enough for recent Michigan teams.

The stereotypes surrounding the Wolverines -- they can't win big games; they struggle on the road; they get owned by their rivals -- were all true entering the 2018 season.

Now, Jim Harbaugh is starting to chip away at that reputation.

There was another well-known shortcoming of recent Michigan teams, one that fans knew well and people outside Ann Arbor might not have noticed. Whenever Michigan teams faced adversity, they would crumble.

That's why Michigan fans who had taken over Spartan Stadium for the better part of the first half got awfully quiet early in the third quarter.

Michigan's history of falling apart

Last year's MSU game is the perfect example of how Michigan struggled to bounce back from its mistakes. After taking an early 3-0 lead, the Wolverines were driving toward midfield when running back Ty Isaac fumbled.

Michigan State recovered the ball. Six plays later, MSU took a 7-3 lead it would never relinquish. Two drives later, it was 14-3. Michigan turned it over four more times, and it was all over.

Jim Harbaugh of looks on during the first quarter against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The 2016 game against Ohio State was another meltdown. Michigan outplayed Ohio State for most of regulation, but after an throwing an interception with a 17-7 lead in the third quarter, the offense completely fell apart. The final three drives of regulation went for a combined 16 yards while Ohio State scored 10 unanswered points and won the game in double overtime.

If Ohio State hadn't missed a late field goal, the game wouldn't have gone to overtime.

It hasn't only been at the end of games, either. Michigan has allowed opposing scores to turn into disastrous stretches and failed to dig out of those holes.

Notre Dame took a 21-3 lead in the opener, which ultimately doomed the Wolverines. Florida State went up 17-3 in the 2016 Orange Bowl. Penn State scored 28 unanswered in a blowout last season. Even a 19-3 lead late in the third quarter wasn't good enough against South Carolina in last season's Outback Bowl, as the Gamecocks ripped off 23 straight points to win.

Michigan hasn't handled adversity well under Harbaugh.

Saturday's answer

Disaster struck early in the second half Saturday, as Chris Evans fumbled on his own 7-yard line and the Spartans recovered. Two plays later, a vintage Mark Dantonio trick play had quarterback Brian Lewerke catching the game-tying touchdown.

For the first time, Spartan Stadium was loud. It got even louder when Michigan fumbled on a handoff deep in MSU territory two drives later.

Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke celebrates a touchdown catch against Michigan on Oct. 20, 2018, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan. (Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Michigan fans who have seen this script before knew what was happening: The Wolverines would give up one more score and lose the game 10-7 or 14-7. It would be another year of what-ifs and if-onlys.

Instead, Michigan responded emphatically.

Michigan State's next two drives went for a total of negative 8 yards. There wasn't even a hint of the Spartans being able to move the chains.

On the first play of the following drive, Shea Patterson hit Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 79-yard touchdown. The ball was thrown perfectly in stride. Peoples-Jones stepped out of an attempted tackle. He scored and struck the Paul Bunyan pose in the end zone.

Donovan Peoples-Jones catches a pass and avoids the tackle of Tre Person before scoring against Michigan State at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018, in East Lansing, Michigan. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The game was over at that point, but the Wolverines added a 13-play, 84-yard touchdown drive on their next possession to make the victory official.

Michigan didn't let a bad sequence morph into a season-changing collapse -- it bounced back and put the game away. It's an underrated part of what's been missing from program's culture during the Harbaugh era.

Now, instead of going into the bye week trying to decipher the exact scenario it would take to win the Big Ten East, Michigan is riding a seven-game winning streak, ranked No. 5 in the country and controls its own destiny in the national championship conversation.

It's the second time in three years that Harbaugh has Michigan squarely in the national title discussion entering November. Last time, Michigan failed to answer the call when the going got tough. This year, the Wolverines have already proven that's not in their DNA.

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