ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When the skies opened up, Michigan took to the air. It cost the Wolverines another loss to in-state rival Michigan State and perhaps a shot at oh so much more.
During a stretch of three drives that spanned the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, while sheets of rain soaked the Big House, the Wolverines' offensive staff dialed up 11 passes on 14 plays for a second-string quarterback making his second start in Ann Arbor. John O'Korn completed one of them for a first down. Three of them were intercepted. And with that, the Spartans had the space to hold on and upset No. 7 Michigan 14-10, Michigan State's eighth win over Michigan in a decade.
"Yeah, you can criticize that," coach Jim Harbaugh said of the passes. "We were trying to run the ball. We were trying to put drives together. We really were."
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio continues to pull rabbits out of his hat in East Lansing. His Spartans are now an improbable 4-1 -- the same as the Wolverines -- and have seemingly put the on-field disaster of the 2016 season behind them. Dantonio said earlier this week that his goal when he took over at Michigan State was to make this game into a rivalry again. "I think it's a rivalry. We'll leave it at that," he said, and he proceeded to knock off an undefeated Michigan team on the road for the second time in the past three years.
Meanwhile, Harbaugh, Michigan's chosen son, has lost four games in his five tries against one of his alma mater's biggest rivals.
Michigan State's offense didn't pick up a first down for the first 27 minutes of the second half. It didn't really need one. Brian Lewerke threw for one touchdown and ran for another in the first two quarters of a game that was heated, physical and full of mistakes on both sides.
The Wolverines' sins, five turnovers, turned out to be more mortal. Senior running back Ty Isaac fumbled near midfield in the first quarter. Michigan State converted the good field position into its first points of the game. Lewerke showed his athleticism and guts on the touchdown play, diving into a crowd of Michigan defenders at the goal line.
He later orchestrated a nine-play march that ended with a well-designed screen play to running back Madre London for the Spartans' second score of the game. London later broke a 50-yard run that put Michigan State in position to push the Wolverines from their heels to their backsides before halftime. His run would prove to be the Spartans' last first down before their final drive of the game. Michigan's defense held Lewerke & Co. to 66 total yards in the second half but couldn't carry quite enough water to salvage a victory.
The defense did provide Michigan's biggest second-half spark. After a botched punt return attempt -- of all things in this series -- the Wolverines' defense narrowly missed picking up a safety on back-to-back plays. It did force Jake Hartbarger to punt with his earhole in the Michigan student section. O'Korn & Co. converted good field position into a quick score, their only touchdown of the game.
O’Korn finished the game 16-of-35 passing for 198 yards and three interceptions. His two starts since transferring to Michigan in 2015 have come during a snow-blanketed game last November and a rain-soaked one this weekend. He showed the ability to escape a pass rush and create momentum at times against the Spartans but also appeared to lose his poise during that turnover deluge early in the final quarter.
It appears that if Michigan is going to resurrect its hopes to bring some type of a championship to Ann Arbor in Harbaugh's third year, O'Korn will be the quarterback to guide the Wolverines through at least the majority of that stretch. Michigan's defense will need to provide plenty of help, and it can. The quarterback also will need some help from the men calling his plays.