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Spartans bring Brady Hoke’s Michigan honeymoon to an all-too-familiar end

Michigan State 28, Michigan 14.
It's one thing to have your worst day against a defense on the order of Michigan State's. But this wasn't just a rough day at the office: For a team with Michigan's recent history, this was the kind of afternoon that can change your perception of who you are and alter the entire trajectory of your season.

I don't think that's going too far. The Wolverines came in as the best rushing offense in the Big Ten and second-best in terms of total yards and points, having rung up more than 1,100 of the former and exactly 100 of the latter in their first two conference games. They left with season lows not only on the scoreboard, but also for rushing yards (83), total yards (251), yards per play (3.7) and third down efficiency (2 of 13). They came in leading the nation in sacks allowed, having yielded just two in six games. The Spartans sacked Robinson and Gardner six times, and hit them at least a dozen more.

Spartans bring Brady Hoke’s Michigan honeymoon to an all-too-familiar endHad the Spartans held on to any of the multiple interceptions that slipped through their hands — or if more the wildly errant passes from quarterbacks Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner had come close enough to give the Spartans a chance, instead of tumbling into swathes of open turf — it would have been the Wolverines' worst day in terms of pass efficiency, too. The one pick Michigan State finally did hold on to went back for an icing touchdown in the fourth quarter. On seven trips into MSU territory after the opening possession, Michigan punted on five and turned it over on downs on a sixth.

Series by series, punt by punt, the sense of progress over the first half of the season dissolved into a disheveled mess. The running game stalled. The two-quarterback shuffle failed to gin up any semblance of a steady passing game, or a big play with Robinson lined up as a wide receiver. The pass protection broke down. In almost every aspect, it was Michigan's worst nightmare: At the exact point on the calendar that optimistic starts began to give way to collapse each of the last two years, the Wolverines  looked like a team on the verge of collapse.

That trend, of course, is precisely the one Brady Hoke was hired to reverse, and has spent the last nine months attempting to ward off with steady invocations of toughness and tradition. As promising as the last six weeks have been, the fate of his first-year campaign rides on the next six: Even Rich Rodriguez's teams, after all, were a combined 9-0 before back-to-back losses to Michigan State in 2009-10. It was only after those losses that they fell apart in Big Ten play. And it's after this loss, with Iowa, Ilinois, Nebraska and Ohio State on deck in November, that Hoke's first team will either separate itself from its wilting predecessors or extend the rebuilding year into 2012, minus the optimism.

The best-case scenario for the Wolverines, as much as it must pain them to admit it, is that Michigan State really is the juggernaut it appears to be on defense. The Spartans started the day ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense and among the top three in every other significant category after leaving Ohio State in a heap two weeks ago, and they'll end it there. Even in the course of allowing 31 points in its only loss, MSU held Notre Dame to its season-low in total yards by a mile. After today, the Spartans look like clear frontrunners in the Legends Division and serious contenders for the Rose Bowl with Wisconsin steamrolling into East Lansing next week.

We'll have more answers for Michigan State then, while Michigan takes the week off to stew in its renewed angst. Without more context, it's still entirely possible today was a battle of two of the best teams in the conference, both of which have a lot to look forward to.

By all appearances, though, Michigan's first priority is proving to itself that old habits don't have to die so hard.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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