EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The hail started to ping off the turf at Spartan Stadium as Michigan's defense closed in on Michigan State's quarterback one final time. Consider it a parting wink from the football gods, who threw all the elements of an upset at the Wolverines on Saturday before watching them celebrate a cathartic, emotional 21-7 victory in East Lansing.
Michigan State has held its in-state rival in mental captivity for almost the entirety of head coach Mark Dantonio's dominant, 12-year tenure in the annual series. Through physical punishment, through wild finishes, through pouring rain and deluges of turnovers, the Spartans had won eight of the past 10 meetings heading into Saturday's game. They had become a psychological hurdle that more often than not sent promising Michigan teams stumbling toward the finish line of an unfulfilling regular season.
Dantonio and Mother Nature conjured what at times felt like a greatest hits list of the past decade in this rivalry. The "thoroughly plowed" tropes, to borrow a phrase from Jim Harbaugh, started hours before kickoff at midfield with linebacker Devin Bush attempting to plow through the Spartan logo with his cleats after emotions spiked during a warm-up scuffle -- another chapter in the petulant antics from both sides that are somehow regularly imbued with meaning of a Biblical proportion.
Then came the bad weather, missed opportunities, turnovers and trick plays to level the playing field for a Michigan State team besieged by injuries and inefficiency on offense. History seemed poised to repeat. Locusts and low snaps were surely on their way.
"Nah," Wolverines senior captain Tyree Kinnel said a little more than one hour and two Michigan touchdowns later. "We're a different team, a completely different team."
The Wolverines snapped back this time and found a feisty, new identity in the process. When the hail arrived, Michigan had already survived the many plagues of Michigan State. Now, with a 7-1 record and standing alone as the only Big Ten team without a conference loss, Michigan and Harbaugh might at last be free to search for their postseason promised land.
Kinnel said this version of Michigan football is "stronger, faster, older" and possesses a better mentality than teams in the past. Harbaugh said this year's team "never blinked" from the pregame posturing through a 75-minute weather delay and the trial of mishaps that followed. A difference-maker at quarterback helps too.
Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson rallied his new team on the sideline when its odds looked most dismal. Then he threw a teardrop pass to Detroit native Donovan Peoples-Jones for a 79-yard score that changed the tenor of the game. Patterson followed that with several big runs on a 13-play, 84-yard drive that sealed the game with another score.
"I think he embraces all the pressure situations," Harbaugh said of his quarterback. "Really pours his heart and soul into playing the game, and [I have] just the ultimate respect for him and the way he plays and who he is and how he completes. He competes like a maniac."
Patterson, who called Saturday's game "one of the most gritty things" he has been a part of, was billed by some coming into this season as the missing piece that might help Harbaugh put together a championship team after being pinned down by disappointing performances in big games during his first three years. Saturday's showing was the best evidence to date in favor of that case.
There is still plenty to prove for Patterson and the Wolverines. To play for a Big Ten title, Michigan still needs to beat Penn State Nittany Lions at home after its bye week and not slip prior to its regular-season finale at the still-daunting Ohio State Buckeyes.
If Michigan State has proved to be a mental hurdle for the Wolverines, Ohio State has served as a brick wall during that same stretch. The Buckeyes looked vulnerable in a loss to the Purdue Boilermakers this weekend, but remain the East Division's most formidable gatekeeper for any team trying to get to championship weekend in Indianapolis.
Saturday's exorcism in East Lansing -- even if it is only for one year after a largely sloppy game against a hamstrung Spartans offense that managed only 94 total yards -- fortified the new level of confidence brewing at Michigan. Senior running back Karan Higdon crowed after the game about his team's surety that Michigan State "wouldn't be able to last with us." Senior defensive end Chase Winovich, always loaded with an inflammatory barb or two, told FOX's postgame reporter on the field that the Wolverines had put "little brother" back in their place.
Winovich deemed Michigan's mid-October schedule the team's "revenge tour" last week after dismantling Wisconsin in primetime. Kinnel said beating the Badgers was the first stop in proving that this year's team was in fact different than others in the past. The next obvious step was beating a rival.
More than the final result, it was the saltiness with which Harbaugh and his players celebrated a win that in so many ways could have gone wrong that makes their proclamations that this team might be different believable.
While the hail poured down after the 21-7 victory was fully in hand, Michigan's players scooped up the Paul Bunyan Trophy that goes to the rivalry's winner and carried it to the midfield logo that Bush had tried to deface six hours earlier. They hoisted their trophy into the icy rain and danced. The Wolverines weathered a near-perfect storm of reasons to falter in East Lansing and emerged on the other end with a new edge.