Wolverines end skid to Spartans

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — “Paul’s back.”

With those two simple words, Jordan Kovacs ended four years of pain for the Michigan football program — its players, coaches and fans.

Distinctive from many Michigan victories, this was hardly a one-man effort. Kovacs and his defense made a key stand in the final three minutes, Denard Robinson hit a big pass with nine seconds left and Brendan Gibbons finished it with a 38-yard field goal to give Michigan a 12-10 victory over Michigan State.

It wasn’t pretty — the Wolverines didn’t manage a single touchdown — but it was enough to bring the Paul Bunyan Trophy back to Schembechler Hall for the first time since 2007.

“They are a great defensive team, but at the end of the game, we picked it up,” Robinson said. “We talked all week about finishing the game, and we were able to do that.”

That means, unlike last year’s seniors, Kovacs and Robinson will leave Michigan with a victory over the Spartans.

“I feel like we definitely got the monkey off our backs today,” Kovacs said. “This program was in desperate need of a win today, not just for this year’s senior class, or even for the underclassmen, but for last year’s guys as well. They are still a part of this program, and this was for them.”

Just as important, it keeps Michigan in contention for a Legends Division championship and a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game (on FOX). The Wolverines are 3-0 in the conference, a full game ahead of Iowa and Nebraska.

“Our point of emphasis this week was playing a big, in-state rivalry game,” Hoke said. “But we’ve got bigger goals, and we will have to improve if we want to accomplish them.”

With 3:18 to play, the Wolverines — trailing 10-9 and punting — were looking at a loss that would have damaged both their state credibility and their championship hopes. Andre Sims fair caught the punt at the Michigan State 8, leaving the game in the hands of Kovacs and his defense.

“When we were going out for that last drive, I was thinking about Notre Dame,” he said. “That time, we couldn’t get the ball back for Denard. I didn’t want to let that happen again.”

It didn’t. Michigan State gained just five yards in three plays, and were lucky to recover a third-down fumble on their own 13. The Wolverines used their second timeout, and Mike Sadler’s long punt was downed at Michigan’s 38 with two minutes to play.

Vincent Smith gained 12 yards on first down — his only carry of the game — but the Wolverines started to bog down yet again.

Robinson saved the drive by lunging for a first down at the Spartans 40, but Fitz Toussaint made a mental mistake on the next play. He caught a tipped pass inbounds, and was tackled for a one-yard loss, forcing Michigan to call its last timeout with 18 seconds to play.

“No one on our sidelines thought the game was over,” Hoke said. “We all knew that Denard was going to get the ball in his hands with another chance to make a play.”

Robinson knew that Michigan was going to need at least 15 yards to give one of their kickers a chance. Kickoff specialist Matt Wile had easily made a 48-yarder earlier in the game, but that had been his first career attempt. Ideally, Michigan wanted to give Gibbons, their usual kicker, a chance from inside 40 yards.

“I knew we needed some yards for Brendan,” Robinson said. “It was the fourth quarter and I always want the ball in my hands in that situation.”

Robinson took the snap, moved around in the pocket and looked for a receiver. He pulled his arm back to throw, but stopped, realizing he had missed the opportunity.

“Drew (Dileo) got open, but I didn’t see it quickly enough,” he said. “Luckily, he came open again in a heartbeat.”

Given the second opportunity, he hit Dileo for a 20-yard gain. It was the junior’s fourth catch for 92 yards — 70 more than any of his teammates.

“Dileo isn’t big enough, he isn’t fast enough, and he doesn’t look like a Big Ten receiver,” Hoke said. “But that kid is a football player.”

Robinson spiked the ball with nine seconds left, then found somewhere quiet to ignore the kick.

“I was just saying a prayer,” he said. “I couldn’t watch. I just waited to hear the crowd.”

Hoke, knowing that kickers are a special breed unto themselves, stayed far away from Gibbons, even after Michigan State tried to ice him with a timeout.

“I’m no kicking coach,” he said. “It’s like golf — I’d probably be a really good golfer if I ever played. Those guys know what to do. I let him do what he did. All I do is watch the fans behind the goal posts. They let you know if the kid makes it or not.”

The snap wasn’t perfect, but the holder — Dileo, of course — pulled it into position and Gibbons drilled the ball safely inside the right upright. The Wolverines then got the most obvious celebration penalty in NCAA history — about 30 players buried Gibbons in the middle of the field — but Michigan State’s attempt at a rugby-style kickoff return ended badly at their own five.

“Our kids wanted to finish everything they did tonight,” Hoke said. “It didn’t matter if they were running the ball, catching the ball, blocking or tackling. They had the mindset to finish, and they did.”