Against the Spartans, Michigan shows exactly how far it’s come

Football

For a moment, it looked like another one of Mark Dantonio’s teams would give Michigan fits in Ann Arbor.

Since Jim Harbaugh returned to Michigan in 2015, both teams had failed to defend home field against their in-state rival. Moments like Blake O’Neill’s mishandled snap in 2015 and Devin Bush’s tarnishing of the midfield Spartan logo in 2018 stand out, but neither team had a home win to show for it.

Until Saturday. After surrendering an early touchdown against Michigan State, the Wolverines scored 24 unanswered points en route to a 44-10 win, keeping the coveted Paul Bunyan Trophy in Ann Arbor.

Given the trajectories these two teams have taken this season, it might not have been hard to see coming. But it was. On Monday, Harbaugh made that much clear.

“Throw out the records,” he said. “That’s a cliché you can use when you play this type of game.”

In a rivalry that has taken no shortage of wild turns over the years, the fact that the Spartans haven’t won a game since September didn’t seem to matter. The six players they’ve lost to the transfer portal this fall seemed like ancient history, as did the 25-point lead they blow at home against Illinois a week ago.

With two minutes left in the first quarter, Dantonio — who Harbaugh referred to as a “master motivator” — established the early upper-hand. After Michigan’s first two possessions ended in a punt and turnover on downs, the U-M defense had ample opportunity to get off the field, but a pass interference call on freshman defensive back Dax Hill gave Michigan State a first down just short of midfield.

The Spartans went on to convert a fourth-and-inches on the plus side of midfield and, two plays later, Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke found Max Rosenthal alone in the end zone for the game’s first score. With Michigan struggling to move the ball at that point, the records truly seemed like they’d been thrown out.

The feeling didn’t last long, as Michigan countered with its best football of the season.

After completing just three of his first eight pass attempts for 39 yards, senior quarterback Shea Patterson completed 21 of his next 25 attempts for 345 yards and four touchdowns — all without committing a turnover, something that plagued U-M’s early-season ceiling.

On the other side of the ball, the defense buckled down. In the final three quarters, Don Brown’s unit allowed just three points on 165 yards of offense after giving up the game’s first points.

In a way, it’s a microcosm of the brand of football the Wolverines have played lately. Three of U-M’s last four games have come against rivals — Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan State — in the “big game” setting Harbaugh’s teams have traditionally faltered on.

But with that stretch in the rearview mirror, that narrative has been reversed. With offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ unit now fully adjusted to the new system, the Wolverines out-gained the Irish, Nittany Lions and Spartans by a combined 638 yards in those games and outscored them, 110-52, including the heartbreaker they lost at Penn State.

Even with two losses, that stretch was bound to be the inflection point of 2019. The season would either become a mirror image of 2017’s disastrous five-loss campaign, or it would rebound nicely.

As for which way it would catapult, that was left to the Wolverines to determine. Their recent performance isn’t a sum of cobbling together fleeting moments — it’s a program playing good football even after a pair of losses. That, more than anything, has resonated more than any words in a press conference could.

Had Michigan had completed the comeback in Happy Valley, we’d be looking at a potential de facto playoff game in Ann Arbor two weeks from now. Such a setting would’ve been a chance to avenge the losses against Ohio State of 2016 and 2018, when the Wolverines fell short under those exact circumstances.

That won’t be the case, but that doesn’t mean Michigan hasn’t played its best football in the last month.

The Wolverines’ old habit of crumbling on the big stage is no longer a foregone conclusion, and the last month is a sustainable reality for a program that recently couldn’t get out of its own way in big games.

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