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  • After outclassing the first Big Ten East rival on their schedule, the Wolverines at full power are a scary proposition for the rest of the league.
By Joan Niesen
October 20, 2018

For the first time since 2006, Michigan defeated a ranked team on the road Saturday. But that wasn’t the most impressive thing about the Wolverines’ 21–7 victory over their in-state rival Michigan State, which entered Saturday ranked No. 24. In a season that started with a disconcerting loss to Notre Dame but now has the makings of something special after seven straight wins, Saturday’s performance marked yet another hurdle cleared in Jim Harbaugh’s quest to win the Big Ten East for the first time during his tenure. One division rival down, two to go.

The pregame chippiness that Harbaugh referred to as “bush league” in his postgame press conference and the cold, soggy weather that ensued once the game was delayed in the first quarter due to lightning seemed to set the stage for a patented Michigan State upset bid. Those conditions worked against the Wolverines for a chunk of the contest, especially in the third quarter when fumbles ended back-to-back possessions, but the fact that it was a one-score game at the start of the fourth quarter obscured how one-sided the contest was all day. Michigan State went 0-for-12 on third down and was outgained offensively 395–94.

Michigan’s 38–13 win over Wisconsin last weekend was the most concrete evidence yet that Harbaugh’s team had a shot at the Big Ten title and perhaps a playoff berth, prompting edge rusher Chase Winovich to announce the start of a “revenge tour” as his team looked to tip the scales in the matchups they had recently come up short in. Saturday’s complete effort on the road in a rivalry game reinforced that a Michigan in control of its own destiny should be something that scares the rest of the conference.

Harbaugh had been dogged for his 1–6 record against his alma mater’s biggest rivals, and while that record looks a little better now, the jabs will return if Michigan can’t take down the Big Ten East’s other two preseason favorites in November. After a week off, the Wolverines host Penn State in Week 10 to cap off a grueling stretch of their schedule. Michigan gets a bit of reprieve until the regular season finale against Ohio State, with Rutgers and Indiana on tap before Thanksgiving. It’s easy to imagine that showdown at the Horseshoe deciding the Big Ten and determining which conference blueblood, if any, gets into the College Football Playoff.

When quarterback Shea Patterson is locked in, the Wolverines can feel good about their chances against the Nittany Lions, the Buckeyes and anyone else in the conference. Throughout Harbaugh’s tenure, Michigan has been known for its elite defenses—this year’s is no exception—and offensive attacks that have fluctuated between lackluster and appalling. Patterson’s six-yard connection with Nico Collins in the second quarter was the first touchdown pass Michigan had thrown against Michigan State since the Denard Robinson days in 2011.

Patterson finished the day with 212 yards on 14-of-25 passing and two touchdowns. Running back Karan Higdon racked up 144 yards, his sixth consecutive game with more than 100 yards on the ground, and deep threat Donovan Peoples-Jones broke the game open with a 79-yard touchdown that gave the Wolverines the lead in the third quarter.

Defensively, it was Michigan’s most impressive effort all season. Michigan State’s only touchdown came on the heels of a Michigan fumble at the Wolverines’ seven-yard-line. It should have been a shutout, but unlike in seasons past, it didn’t have to be—and that could be the difference for a Michigan team that looks like Harbaugh’s best yet.

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