What We Learned & What We're Asking: Michigan Shows Mental Toughness At MSU

Michigan's performance Saturday against rival MSU answered plenty of our biggest question marks.

What We Learned: Michigan has the mental toughness required to be a great team.

Four possessions. At the Michigan 49-yard line. The Michigan State 43-yard line. The U-M 42-yard line. The MSU 48-yard line. Four glorious opportunities leading 7-0 to take a commanding lead and blow their rivals out of the stadium before halftime.

Four times the Wolverines felt the sun shining on them, and four times they came up empty. Adversity struck (admittedly, self-inflicted) and when the Spartans tied the score following a fumble recovery at the Michigan seven-yard line in the third quarter, that could have been it. That could have been the moment MSU took control, that panic set in for the Maize and Blue, that the partisan crowd fueled its team, and that Michigan caved.

That could have been MSU 2015, Iowa 2016, Michigan State 2017, South Carolina 2017 – a game in which Michigan was more talented, was clearly the better team, had the victory in their sights and yet, somehow, the Wolverines lost.

Time and time again, U-M could have collapsed, on the road, against a rival, against this program, and you waited and waited, and kept waiting. It didn’t happen. Michigan didn’t crumble. It grew stronger. The Wolverines showed fortitude, resilience, they believed in what they could feel between the white lines – that they were bullying the Spartans, and that at some point, the dam would break.

It happened late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, with back-to-back possessions in which Michigan put ‘7’ on the board. It continued as U-M salted the clock away with a nine-play drive, all runs, that took 6:41 off the clock, leaving only 2:38 remaining in the contest.

Not enough time for State to mount a comeback. Not when quarterback Brian Lewerke had been beaten and bruised. Not when the Spartans had no path to move the football – at that point, Michigan State had 46 yards of offense on 46 plays – not without a miracle, and on this Saturday, the football gods rewarded the team that deserved good fortune.

It doesn’t happen if this team hasn’t stiffened the spine from its week-one loss at Notre Dame, its struggles in the first half at Northwestern, and its night-game beat down of Wisconsin.

We like to talk about toughness as it relates to football players and football teams, but it’s rarely about physical toughness. It’s the mental side. Do you have the confidence to rebound from setbacks? Are you strong enough mentally to rally when momentum shifts and the tidal wave is coming? We have wondered that all year. On Saturday, we received a definitive answer: yes.

What We’re Asking: Has the rivalry flipped for good?

During Rich Rodriguez’s three years, Michigan lost to MSU three times by an average of 12.3 points per defeat. During the Brady Hoke years, U-M went 1-3 and lost by an average of 23.0 points per loss. In four years under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan is 2-2, with wins by an average of 11.5 points and losses by an average of 4.0 points, and one absolute fluke (2015) that should be in the ‘W’ column.

But it’s not, and Michigan hasn’t won two in a row over the Spartans since winning six straight from 2002-07. So, to suggest the rivalry has flipped is premature. One win a streak does not make. The Wolverines need to win consecutively, and then again after that, and after that.

Certainly, there are signs. Harbaugh’s average recruiting class ranking since 2016 (including 2019 class) is 10.8 with 53 four- or five-star signees while MSU’s is 27.0 with 18 four- or five-star recruits. Michigan is getting more talented. Michigan State is staying the same. Great coaching can overcome, but U-M’s coaching can equal (or surpass) what the Spartans have. In other words, it’s trending Michigan’s direction.

But words on a paper do not win games. Stars next to a name do not win games. Resumes on a coaching staff do not win games. Mental focus, physical play, execution and game planning win games. Michigan is in a better position in those regards than it has been at any point during Mark Dantonio’s tenure (2007-present), but win at least one more (and ideally two) before we fully tilt the field towards Ann Arbor.

What We Learned: Michigan is creating an offensive identity this season.

Circle back to the game at Northwestern. Michigan ran the football on 21 of 28 first downs.

Fans clamored for more passing. Use the pass to set up the run, instead of the other way around. Against Maryland, we saw more of the same, the Wolverines running on 19 of 30 first downs.

Why would this be?

Why would a coaching staff that finally has a five-star QB and an elite collection of skill at wide receiver and tight end be so stubborn running the football?

Why when this program has struggled to effectively produce yards on the ground against good teams, would the coaches continually run into a brick wall?

Why? Why? Why?

Wisconsin and Michigan State are the answers.

Michigan won both games against ranked opponents because their quarterback made some big plays and the defense was lights out, but they took over both contests as the rushing attack came alive.

Against the Badgers, U-M rushed for 320 yards. At MSU, against the nation’s stingiest rush defense, U-M piled up 183, including 60 yards rushing on nine carries (6.7-yard average) on a touchdown drive that saw the Maize and Blue go up 21-7, and 33 yards on nine rushes that saw the Wolverines milk 6:41 off the clock in the final quarter.

After years and years of shrinking when the opponent grew in stature, the coaches worked six weeks to instill a culture convincing the offensive line, the running backs -- the entire team -- that they would keep fighting and keep running because the Wolverines needed to expect to have success when it mattered most.

That mentality has been on full display the past two games, with Michigan believing it would eventually break through a loaded defensive box hell bent on stopping the run. It worked. And U-M has two wins to show for it (and confidence in the running game going forward).

What We’re Asking: Will Michigan get both of its injured stars back for Penn State?

Junior defensive end Rashan Gary missed his third straight game after aggravating a shoulder injury against Northwestern Sept. 29. There is speculation Gary might pull a Nick Bosa and shut it down the rest of the year so that he can focus on the NFL Draft.

While those conversations have taken place according to sources, Gary wants to play. He participated in practices last week leading up to the Michigan State game, hoping to be good enough to play against the Spartans.

It didn’t happen, and every week that goes by without Gary on the field lends greater likelihood that he will sit the remainder of the season (though with his draft stock slipping, he might give greater thought to returning for a senior year).

In Gary’s absence, getting more snaps, junior Josh Uche and sophomore Kwity Paye have combined for 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in three games, and have filled in quite well. Uche has taken over the team lead with five QB takedowns on the year.

Still, you’d love to get Gary back for the final stretch, and all indications are he is working every day to make that happen.

While Gary’s status remains up in the air, it’s almost certain that sophomore wide receiver Tarik Black will return against Penn State. He dressed and was on the field (for at least one snap) at Michigan State. He wasn’t targeted with a pass attempt but with two weeks between games, Black is expected to join the receiver rotation.

What he adds remains to be seen. Black caught 11 passes in three games before suffering a season-ending foot injury in 2017. He’s missed every game this year with an injury to the other foot.

In the meantime, classmates Donovan Peoples-Jones (42 receptions, six TDs), Nico Collins (24 catches, 2 TDs) and Oliver Martin (7 grabs) have emerged, lessening the void felt at the receiver position by Black’s absence this year.

The good news is Michigan has this time to adapt to an offense where it has Peoples-Jones, Collins and Black.