As junior cornerback Lavert Hill went through his progressions before Saturday’s game, a Michigan State player snatched his headphones, instigating a scrum at midfield.
As it turned out, that was the most damage that the Spartans inflicted on Michigan’s defense all afternoon.
“ ‘This the type of game y’all want it to be?’ ” Hill said of the incident postgame. “Then we just gonna handle it on the field. They can do all that before the game but they ain’t nothing. For real.”
Michigan State’s crowning offensive achievement came on a double reverse pass play — also known as the Philly special — that ended with quarterback Brian Lewerke hauling in a reception in the end zone.
That play, which started from the Wolverines’ four-yard line, was only made possible by a Michigan fumble inside its own 10 two plays earlier.
To that point, it was the Spartans’ only trip inside the 28. After it, the furthest they got was the 24 — both trips culminating without points.
“ ‘Adversity introduces a man to himself,’ ” said coach Harbaugh after the game, quoting NBA Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning. “And our guys didn’t blink. We’ve got a tough, smart group of guys.”
Despite the touchdown, the Wolverines never allowed a drive of more than 48 yards. Without Michigan’s nine penalties, Michigan State’s longest drive would have been a mere 24 yards.
On third downs—a frustrating problem for the Wolverines’ defense early this season—the Spartans failed to convert in 12 tries.
“Defense was lights out today,” Harbaugh said. “Held the opponent to (94) yards of total offense and no third down conversions. That’s the dream, that’s a dream game.”
Added junior linebacker Devin Bush when asked about allowing just 94 yards of offense: “It speaks for itself. We went out there and we executed our scheme, executed our plan and we fought hard to take our opportunity. Coming into this game, we knew we had to finish in the first and second half and that’s what we did.”
While Michigan’s defense held Michigan State to just 15 yards on 23 carries, it was perhaps more impressive in the air, limiting the Spartans’ passing attack to 66 yards on 28 attempts, as Lewerke completed just five of his 25 tries.
The Wolverines’ domination on the ground was impressive but also somewhat expected. Michigan State has struggled to just 123 rushing yards per game — 108th in the country — while Lewerke has passed for 271.5 per game, 30th best nationally.
It’s yet another stride for a pass defense that was heavily criticized early in the season but has since ascended to be the best in the country in yards allowed per game.
In its season-opening loss to Notre Dame, Michigan allowed 163 passing yards in the first half. Two weeks later, SMU’s James Proche put up 166 receiving yards on a struggling Wolverines’ defense.
Over its past two games, Michigan has allowed just 179 combined yards through the air — and under 100 excluding last-minute garbage time drives.
“We’re just playing more fast, playing more physical,” Hill said, “And just trusting each other and trusting the process. Just going out there and just having fun.”
Before kickoff, Michigan State might have thought it was a good idea to mess with Hill and the Wolverines’ defense. Over the next four hours, Michigan made sure the Spartans would not be leaving with any similar illusions.
“We knew they couldn’t hang with us,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich. “… Sometimes your little brother starts acting up, and you just gotta put them in place.”