Shea Patterson dropped back to pass with less than a minute to play and the game on the line in the season opener against Notre Dame.
He had just moments to throw before the Irish rush forced him to move from the pocket like they had so many times earlier in the game. He scampered to his right looking downfield when the palm of a ND player knocked the ball out of his hands.
ND recovered and Michigan lost another big game. It was the same old story.
The defense started slow but held the Irish to less than 100 yards in the second half. The offense gave a late effort and showed a flash of hope with a touchdown drive, but couldn’t finish. U-M lost to another ranked team on the road.
There was still no clear answer for Jim Harbaugh, just sprinkles that he had an operating offense. There were signs Patterson could throw the deep ball and command a long drive. The young receivers showed they could make plays.
Nevertheless, the end result was the same song the Wolverines had been singing since Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor and the fan base was less than satisfied.
Then things started to click. The Wolverines were beating teams they were suppose to beat, but they were doing so with blowouts. They scored more than 40 points in four of the next five contests.
Karan Higdon began to put together 100-yard games. Patterson threw 10 touchdowns with two interceptions. Donovan Peoples-Jones started to find the end zone and run good routes. The offense was showing signs of life with play-making that hadn’t been seen under Harbaugh in his four-year tenure.
Did it really mean anything though? It’s the question most people including myself were asking. Maybe this offense could do this well against unranked opponents, but what was this team really made of?
It turns out a whole lot of mental toughness and grit that hadn’t been seen in a U-M team since Lloyd Carr walked the sidelines at the Big House.
U-M brought in College GameDay when No. 15 Wisconsin visited Ann Arbor. Harbaugh was 0-5 in games the ESPN national pregame show featured the Wolverines in.
His offense smacked the Badgers in the mouth by dropping 38 points on them in a 25-point victory under the lights. Wisconsin hadn’t lost a game by more than a touchdown since 2015.
It was clear the Wolverines had an offense that could compete. The naysayers didn’t leave, however.
Many, including myself, still had a hard time trusting the Wolverines to win a game against a ranked opponent on the road, something the U-M head coach had yet to accomplished.
He had the chance against the No. 24 ranked Spartans, and his team responded by earning the 21-7 victory on a wet day at Spartan Stadium. Following a fumble that resulted in an MSU score to tie the game at 7-7, the Wolverines scored 14-unanswered points to close out the game.
To me, though, the major difference was the off-field antics. Harbaugh called MSU and Mark Dantonio “bush league” for the pregame issue with Devin Bush and Lavert Hill. Bush stomped on the logo and ripped up the sod of the Spartan logo before the game. They stomped on it after the game with the Paul Bunyan trophy.
This time there was no Brady Hoke public apology like in 2014. The Wolverines weren’t the team being dominated. U-M punched MSU in the gut and left East Lansing like it was expected.
Most importantly, the Wolverines found themselves an identity.
This team has more mental toughness than any other Harbaugh-coached Wolverine team, including the 2016 bunch that competed for the College Football Playoff.
While that team did beat the Spartans, they lost to unranked Iowa on the road. The 2018 Wolverines were tested by Northwestern with a 17-0 deficit in the first half but found a way to win. The 2016 Wolverines played Wisconsin at home and won on a late interception. These Wolverines didn’t make it close.
Harbaugh has found an offense that works for him like it did with Andrew Luck at Stanford or Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco. He played with an attitude against a rival like the guy who back-slapped Jim Schwartz or got into it with Pete Carroll after the game.
His players have followed that attitude. It’s an identity that this is their job, this is what Wolverine football is all about. Going into places and taking care of business with a swagger that makes other schools despise them.
The Wolverines have finally found what they’ve been searching for — a team that has the confidence to get to heights they haven’t yet reached in the Harbaugh era.