How Harbaugh Changed Approach To Help Michigan Flip Script Against MSU

It was a win a year in the making.

Will Burchfield
October 20, 2018 - 10:09 pm

© Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

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Here came Michigan State, here came the crowd. Here came the rain, here came a fumble by Michigan, and another one soon thereafter. Midway through the third quarter, as the skies darkened over Spartan Stadium and a Mark Dantonio trick play knotted things at 7, here came another vintage win for Michigan State, and another haunting loss for Michigan. 

And then there went Donovan Peoples-Jones down the sideline, and here came the ball, a perfectly-thrown pass by Shea Patterson that fell through the rain and into the receiver's waiting arms. Peoples-Jones was in the end zone 79 yards later, and Michigan was free from its own nightmare, vaulted to a 21-7 victory that was charred around the edges and even more meaningful for it.

In any other year in this rivalry, the Spartans wind up winning Saturday. But this year the Wolverines steeled themselves for the adversity and stared down defeat. 

"I came across a great quote this week, by Alonzo Mourning: 'Adversity introduces a man to himself,'" Jim Harbaugh said. "And our guys didn’t blink. We have tough, smart, good guys, so it was onward. Tough set of circumstances, but we came right back and answered." 

With due respect to the seven-time NBA All-Star, who got knocked down again and again before finally winning the big one, that quote doesn't belong to him. A quick Google search reveals its true owner is Albert Einstein. It fit just the same on Saturday for the Wolverines, who learned a lot about themselves when the going got tough in the biggest spot of the year. 

Lavert Hill, one of three Michigan players who took center stage prior to the game in a skirmish we haven't heard the last of, first heard those words from Harbaugh on Friday. He nodded afterward when he heard them again. 

"He said that yesterday, so we all took it and just ran with it and went out there and got the W. Coach Harbaugh, he thinks he’s real smart," Hill said with a smile. "He thinks he knows a lot, so we just gotta trust that man." 

Surely thinking it was smart, Harbaugh spent the first three years of his tenure at Michigan treating rivalry games the same as any other. He downplayed the heightened emotion and the elevated stakes, despite his acute understanding of both. He wanted his players to take on the same level-headed demeanor. They did, and in doing so seemed to be short on fire, especially against this rival. 

Then last year the Spartans came into the Big House and notched one of those vintage victories. Afterward, they paraded the Paul Bunyan trophy around the field, a trophy that Michigan has always celebrated with in its locker room since it was introduced in 1953. That triggered something in Harbaugh, who right then started looking toward Saturday's grudge match in East Lansing.

"Had this one circled for a long time, for a whole year," he said. 

When the players arrived at Schembechler Hall on Monday to begin preparations, they found photos of that Michigan State celebration plastered all over the walls. Picture after picture of the Spartans holding Paul Bunyan aloft and turning Michigan Stadium into their own. 

The message was pretty clear: Time to settle the score. 

"It just felt like a chip on our shoulder," said Hill. "Just motivated us to go out there and win." 

When they did, dominating the game along the way, they brought Bunyan onto the field for the first time as victors and followed the Spartans' lead. 

"We were reminded of that every single day this week. That’s what they wanted to do. Coach gave us the clear to. We win this game, we win the trophy and make the field our field. That’s what they did to us last year. It felt good doing that," said Tyree Kinnel. 

For a familiar moment there in the third quarter, it looked like they weren't going to get the chance. Their destiny was slipping away on a soaked field, the same field whose logo Devin Bush foolishly stomped on before the game, the kind of insult the Spartans so often use as inspiration. The momentum was shifting, a Michigan State upset falling into place. 

But adversity introduces a man to himself, and the Wolverines learned this year they would not break. 

"We stayed together," said Bush. "We didn’t let those things affect us how people think it would or could. We just kept playing our game."

They leaned on their defense, which forced one three-and-out after another, and continued to trust in their offense. Finally the latter caught up. When it was all said and done, Michigan rushed for 183 yards against the best run defense in the country, and held the Spartans to 94 yards of total offense. They out-gained them by more than 300 yards overall. 

Patterson, the quarterback Michigan has been missing in this rivalry of late, deemed it a "statement game," and he acted like it throughout. After the Wolverines fumbled for the second time in three drives in the driving rain of the third quarter, Patterson popped his head into the defensive huddle on the sideline and implored his teammates to just keep doing their thing. Get us the ball back, he told them, and dammit we're going to score.

The defense delivered, and then Patterson followed through, arching that pass to Peoples-Jones down the Michigan State sideline. It made it 14-7, and it put out the fire. The rain relented for a short while after, the skies clearing just a little, the cloud hanging over this team and its head coach finally starting to lift. It would storm some more in the fourth quarter, but the worst of it was gone. 

"We knew this was going to be a big game," Patterson said. "Hell of an atmosphere here at Michigan State. Rowdy fans. We just had to stay within ourselves and know that the game was coming back to us." 

They raced onto the field in all directions when the clock struck zero, their arms thrust over the heads and their helmets held in the air, a new ending to a well-known story. They had Paul Bunyan join them, and they carried him around the stadium and held him up to their fans. Having finally defied the narrative and any bad karma, they gathered upon the logo where it all began, a fitting conclusion to the day, to the week and to the last year of expectation. 

"We knew when the whistle blew we were going to let it all out," said Karan Higdon. "All our frustration, all the personal things we felt about this game, we were going to let it out."