ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Some might say Michigan delivered a statement win over Notre Dame on Saturday. Others might say the victory is only a temporary reprieve from the real test that awaits in late November.
Both points can be true at once. Everything about the way Michigan dominated the Fighting Irish in a 45-14 victory showed just how badly the Wolverines not only needed to win, but how badly they needed an emphatic win to tamp down the continuing narrative that Jim Harbaugh cannot win big games (and might leave as a result).
Late November can wait. In the here and now, Michigan seems like a team that is finally starting to find its way after a colossal meltdown at Wisconsin and a heartbreaking loss to Penn State that could end up saving the season.
While those outside the Michigan football complex spent the past week debating yet again whether Harbaugh would stick around to finish the job he set out five years ago to do, Harbaugh and those inside pressed on diligently, even though their Big Ten championship hopes had all but vanished.
It would have been easier to quit, but Michigan showed a spark in the second half against the Nittany Lions that it carried into the Notre Dame game. In a driving rainstorm, a team that had made a habit of fumbling suddenly stopped fumbling.
An offensive line that struggled for consistency suddenly opened gaping holes and moved defenders at will, including an epic effort late in the game from backup Stephen Spanellis, who blocked his defender well past the sideline in a moment that went viral on social media. A defense that gave up too many big plays locked down everyone, holding Ian Book to a career-low 73 yards passing and limiting the run game to 47 yards on 31 carries.
“I saw it coming,” Harbaugh said. “Just watching them prepare, watching them practice, watching the detail in the meetings, just how important it was to them. Day in, day out, work in practice — the growth, you could see it.”
If the players felt the need to win for Harbaugh, or to prove anything about the state of the program, they were not saying. Quarterback Shea Patterson, who has taken more criticism than any player on the Wolverines’ roster, turned and looked at teammates Hassan Haskins and Josh Metellus when asked if the victory said anything about Michigan given the tumult over the previous seven days.
They seemed to be speaking to each other without actually saying any words.
“Not really,” Patterson said eventually. “I thought we just needed to come out from start to finish and just play the way we know how to play. Really, that was the first time on all cylinders we played our best game, and when we do that, we’re really tough to beat.”
This was indeed the best performance of the season. The issues at Michigan began long before the Wisconsin and Penn State games. In the opener against Middle Tennessee, the offense appeared disjointed, and Patterson found himself with a seat on the bench in the second half.
The Wolverines followed up that performance with three fumbles and a near loss to Army, and put up just 267 yards of offense and 13 first downs in a victory over Iowa. Then they had to survive Illinois after nearly blowing a big lead. For a team that started out in the preseason top 10 with Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff hopes, the first seven games did not offer much in the way of proof that anything had actually changed.
Instead, they reaffirmed the narrative that has trailed Harbaugh: His teams cannot win big games. Headed into the Notre Dame game, his 1-10 record against top-10 teams was referenced so many times, it became almost impossible to hear anything else.
“Every year it’s always something different,” center Cesar Ruiz said. “Everybody’s going to say something about us. We cancel out the noise. We know what we can do, we know the truth and we know when the opportunity is there, we’re going to take advantage of it.”
In the losses, Harbaugh and his staff found teachable moments. Michigan had 14 turnovers in its first seven games. The Wolverines had none against Notre Dame, the first game all season without a turnover. Offensive lineman Michael Onwenu said Michigan also brought back some plays that worked well last season, perhaps as a way to help bridge the old with the new scheme offensive coordinator Josh Gattis is trying to implement, with streaky success.
“It’s important to bring that back and do what worked, set a trend and everything else,” Onwenu said.
Making sure Patterson is able to run more is big for him as well. He has double-digit carries in each of the past two games and seems to be playing with more confidence.
“The second half of the Penn State game, I thought we found our stride,” Patterson said. “I think we realized after that game we can’t come out flat and expect to make a heroic comeback in the end.”
What happens from here will end up determining Michigan’s season. There’s plenty left to play for: 10 wins, a New Year’s Six game, and victories over rivals Michigan State (Nov. 16) and Ohio State (Nov. 30). If the Wolverines can find a way to beat the Buckeyes to possibly spoil their perfect season and a shot at a Big Ten championship, the season will be made.
If not, Harbaugh will remain winless against Ohio State, and the questions and panic will only grow. But that’s for another week.
Coaches and players will tell you they never look ahead. That is for everyone else to do. What Michigan (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) learned against Notre Dame is what it takes to actually bounce back. Now it has to build off the Notre Dame win with a trip to Maryland up next.
“That’s why I have so much respect for our players,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve had some tests. They’ve taken some criticism, but to have the mindset to keep working and keep growing, that leads to really great victories and success and it’s a great lesson for them. Not everybody can do that. Bodes well.”