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Despite slim win over MSU, Michigan proves it’s heavyweight of Big Ten

Photo: Adam Ruff | Icon Sportswire

Michigan didn’t deliver the Herculean knockout blow like most anticipated, but it had moments of dominance during a 32-23 win Saturday over Michigan State in East Lansing.

Tied 7-7 after the first quarter, the No. 2-ranked Wolverines (8-0, 5-0) flipped a switch during a 20-point second quarter, taking a 27-10 lead into halftime. Technically, it was over by halftime — a prediction made by many — but the unranked Spartans (2-6, 0-5) showed life during the third and fourth quarters, outscoring their guests 13-5… but of course, it wasn’t enough.

Though not as impressive as it could have been, Michigan’s talent, depth and experience held together its first win over MSU since 2012. Despite a five-point fourth, UM found enough to close the door on its in-state rival for just the third time during the past 10 meetings.

Regardless of opponent, UM has shown up — and shown enough — when it has mattered most. Don’t let the score fool you, the Wolverines controlled 90 percent of Saturday’s affair, both emotionally and physically.

Even the Spartans’ last-gasp efforts in the fourth.

It was going to take another Mark Dantonio-style miracle for them to end the day on a high note, but the Wolverines kind of welcomed such an attempt during the Spartans’ 2-point conversion attempt. An awkward pitch ended up as a fumble, and 90 yards later, after a scoop-and-go, it turned into a 2-point score for Peppers.

“We’ve been here before — just finish, just win the game,” Peppers said after the victory, his first of his career in Ann Arbor (per ESPN). “That’s it. One second left, they’re going for 2 — they still have to kick the ball off and get the onside kick… and then hopefully throw a Hail Mary. So you know, there were no nerves — like I said, we’ve been here before…”

Peppers, a Heisman candidate, rushed five times for 24 yards and a touchdown. He nearly picked off Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke in the fourth quarter — if he had done so, he probably would have returned it for a pick-6 — and his presence, as usual, heavily influenced the opposing offense’s tendencies.

“We showed poise — and shout-out to the guys for hanging tough,” Peppers said of the Spartans. “I don’t care what their record is, they’re a great team. Coming into their house and pulling off a victory in this rivalry is something special.”

Special, indeed. It proved that Michigan needs to be considered as the team to beat. Two weeks ago, it was a team to beat. Now it’s the unanimous choice for king of the Big Ten.

Name a team that can stop the Wolverines. Ohio State? That’ll be decided on the final Saturday of November.

For now, UM seems to have a clear path to what could very well be an undefeated season.

Entering 2016, the run game was in question. Through the past three weeks, the Wolverines have all but flattened and/or evaded opponents with their foursome of senior De’Veon Smith, redshirt junior Ty Isaac, sophomore Karan Higdon and true freshman Chris Evans.

And really, sometimes it’s a fivesome when true freshman Eddie McDoom, technically a receiver, gets involved.

The Wolverines gave up a ton of yards on Saturday, by their standards, to Spartans star sophomore L.J. Scott, who finished with 22 carries for 139 yards and a score.

But they also gained their share… 192 yards on the ground versus a typically ravaging MSU defense, regardless of circumstance, deserves attention.

The run game can no longer be questioned.

And that’s a sign of a dominant, championship-contending type of team.

“Anytime you can get the ball moving on the ground, it’s demoralizing to their defense, whoever you’re playing,” said redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight, who completed 16 of 25 passes for 244 yards and an interception. “But, the fact that is was a rivalry game and we were able to come out and hit them in the mouth offense line-wise and running back-wise it opened up the passing game.”

Michigan’s No. 1-ranked defense held MSU to just one conversion on fourth down. Prior to Saturday, UM opponents had succeeded just five times — and that’s mostly because they end up punting rather than going for a new set of chains.

Another sign of a dominant team? Stingy defense — even when one opposing player has a field day, such as Scott.

“That fires us up. The defense all year are really a bend and don’t break type defense,” Speight said. “They bent a little bit more than usual today and we’ll admit that, but, they never break and it speaks very highly of the defensive line with the linebackers.

“Like I said having your backs against the wall to be able to fire up out on the offensive line and make sure the push goes in our favor.”

The push has gone in Michigan’s favor. That much had been made clear Saturday. Under normal circumstances, a nine-point road conference road win wouldn’t be too much to celebrate. Maybe a few high-fives, some pats on the back.

But Michigan — which has wins over Wisconsin and Colorado, plus triumphs over four top-50 passing defenses – did more than win by nine points Saturday: It finally beat MSU, which matters; it proved it could flex harder than MSU, which really matters in a rivalry; and it left no doubt — despite MSU’s resurgence and recent success — that it’s UM vs. everyone else in the Big Ten.

Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh uses the term “it’s a championship game” every week.

His team played accordingly in East Lansing.

Unless otherwise noted, quotes provided by MSU media transcript

Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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