With rain glistening in the stadium lights as it downpoured onto the field, the sight of maize ponchos against the night sky was almost picture perfect.
On the field, the same can be said of the Michigan football team’s performance. In a game that saw U-M convincingly control all aspects of the game from start to finish, the 19th-ranked Wolverines upset No. 8 Notre Dame, 45-14, on Saturday night.
The notion of Michigan flopping in big games has become a mainstream narrative by now. Entering Saturday night, the Wolverines were 5-12 against top-15 teams in the Harbaugh era. Of those 12 losses, Michigan has found itself on the wrong side of more than a few blowouts.
But against the Fighting Irish, U-M flipped the script. The Wolverines out-gained Notre Dame by over 250 yards — a true testament to the extent it dominated on both sides of the ball.
For much of the game, the thorough beatdown came in the midst of torrential rain. Each team struggled to handle the ball, but Michigan made early headway by overwhelming the Fighting Irish in the ground game. The Wolverines didn’t let up, as Hassan Haskins (20 carries, 149 yards) and Zach Charbonnet (15 carries, 74 yards, two touchdowns) paced a rushing attack that eclipsed the 300-yard mark for the first time since last season’s win over Wisconsin.
By the time senior quarterback Shea Patterson even completed a pass, which came 19 minutes into the game, the Wolverines were sitting on a 10-point lead. And once they incorporated the aerial attack into the onslaught, Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey had no issue accounting for a trio of touchdowns.
Josh Gattis didn’t have a seamless transition to calling plays. His unit tried to make a statement in Madison and failed. A month later, it tried to stage a late comeback in Happy Valley and fell short again.
While the second half against Penn State might’ve put the nail in the coffin of any College Football Playoff or Big Ten title hopes, it laid the foundation for a pivotal inflection point. The way Michigan has played in its last six quarters is the version of this team most of the country expected to see all season. The Wolverines outscored Penn State and Notre Dame, 59-21, in that span — a stretch that made struggles against Army and Wisconsin feel like distant memories.
But in a four-team playoff field, there’s no way to hide from that second defeat. When Penn State put the second tally in Michigan loss column, the Wolverines spent a week fielding questions about what was left to play for in a seemingly lost season.
On Saturday night, those questions were answered emphatically. Michigan showed that this season is anything but lost. It won’t end in a national championship or a Big Ten title, but shutting the door on a season before the calendar even flips to November is far from what this group plans to do.
Against the Irish, U-M showed a side of this program that has been absent since Harbaugh took the reins. The Wolverines have fallen into a habit of throwing it in the towel after taking a second loss — a trend which easily could’ve opened the door for another season to unravel against a top-10 opponent on Saturday night.
The fact that every sign foreshadowed a dud from a program that’s repeatedly faltered against ranked opponents on the biggest stage only made the opposite outcome all the more meaningful.
“We really were angry because we knew the game slipped away from us last week,” senior safety Josh Metellus said. “We came in with the mindset that we had to dominate no matter what.”
For Michigan, that was the biggest difference. The sulking of past seasons was replaced by a burning desire to prove something in a massive rebound win.
That sort of stark change is rooted in a program’s culture, which is contingent on the man in charge. For Harbaugh, Saturday night’s triumph was anything but a case of “too little, too late.”