Two months ago, nobody saw this coming from the Michigan Wolverines.
A 35-14 loss at Wisconsin back in September after two pretty inconsistent and underwhelming efforts against Middle Tennessee and Army was the lowest point of the Jim Harbaugh era, even considering how badly last season’s game at Ohio State went. This program looked all out of sorts, out of answers and was potentially running out of time to get it figured out.
Just over a month ago, Michigan’s offense struggled again in a 10-3 win against Iowa. Harbaugh proclaimed that the offense was “hitting its stride,” and many of us laughed at him.
“Has this guy lost his mind?”
“Harbaugh is delusional.”
“Does he need to be medicated?”
These were all takes that were spouted off in one place or another. Some of the criticisms were warranted and others were simply overly-dramatic, mean-spirited and piling on.
After the Wisconsin game, I wrote that the Harbaugh era had become “indefensible” due to the lack of success in big-game settings, including slow starts and holes too big to climb out of on the road. I said a lot of other things in there that I’m not all that proud of, but they felt like accurate criticisms at the time. Many others in the media were saying similar things, but they’ll pretend it never happened. I wrote it, and stand by what that message was at the time. I own that.
But man oh man, I’ve been eating crow for weeks and it’s starting to become an acquired taste I don’t mind so much.
Harbaugh and his staff used the Wisconsin disaster as a total reboot and a hard reset for the team. Expectations had to be adjusted, but this was a team that was drinking out of a firehose early on and trying to make up too much ground on Ohio State too quickly. They folded under that pressure in the early part of the season and had to take baby steps one day, one game, one week at a time to get back on track.
Michigan responded to the loss at Wisconsin with three wins in a row heading into Penn State, but then things came crashing back down to earth again after falling into a 21-0 hole at night in Happy Valley. The critics were back, and in greater numbers. Harbaugh came out of the locker room at halftime and proclaimed that the final 30 minutes of football in that game would be Michigan’s “finest hour.” It seemed like another Harbaughism at the time, but it’s hard to argue with what happened after.
The Wolverines roared back in that game and had a chance to tie it late before a ball slipped through Ronnie Bell’s fingertips. Don Brown’s defense could not get off the field enough and surrendered too many big plays. Michigan would fall to 5-2 on the season and their dreams of winning the Big Ten and going to Indy were destroyed before the calendar even flipped to November.
Since then, Michigan has truly hit its stride on both sides of the ball and has been obliterating every team in its path. The Wolverines have outscored Notre Dame, Maryland, Michigan State and Indiana by a combined margin of 166-45.
Josh Gattis’ offense, which was a mess to start the year, is emphatically imposing its will on other teams and taking what the defense gives them. What we are seeing develop there is an attack that can be multi-faceted in its approach. If a team is going to load the box and dare them to pass, they are finding matchups all over the field in the passing game to exploit. If teams adjust to take away the passing game, they are confident that they have an offensive line to push you around and backs that can take advantage and rack up yards on the ground.
The biggest key, though? Senior quarterback Shea Patterson.
He has been nothing short of magical the last few weeks and is playing the best football of his Michigan career. People are (somewhat rightfully) asking where this passing game was to start the year, but it goes much deeper than just playcalling and approach. Michigan is able to throw with the success that they have been because Patterson is playing confident and inspired football. That just was not the case earlier this season, whether it be due to injury or learning the new offense.
Harbaugh and Gattis have remained loyal to Patterson throughout the season and he is rewarding them for that. Both coaches are also putting him in a much better spot to succeed, as well.
The offensive turnaround is pretty and is what is putting butts in the seats of the Michigan bandwagon, but we sort of expected this to click at some point. A promising development has taken place on the defensive side, as well. Something we never thought would be possible.
That old and stubborn Don Brown is making adjustments and pulling the right strings.
Sit down for a second and think about the last time you yelled at your TV about Michigan’s inability to defend a crossing route.
Right, because it hasn’t happened much.
Brown’s defense has remained aggressive while also mixing in zone coverages to throw offenses off balance. Teams have three-plus years of Brown’s defenses on tape and feel like they know what he likes to do in certain situations, but “Dr. Blitz” is throwing a monkey wrench into those plans by mixing coverages while still remaining aggressive. His young, fast defense is hitting its stride and it started to happen around the time they unleashed linebacker Cam McGrone and safety Daxton Hill and has only gotten better each week. The pass rush remains a strength of the team and on any given play, Kwity Paye, Aiden Hutchinson, Josh Uche or others could be in the backfield.
Harbaugh has shed a lot of labels about himself and his program this year, especially after one of its darkest moments back in September. One giant one remains in Michigan’s path in this last week of the year.
All that anyone could have asked for is that from the beginning to the end, Michigan improved from start to finish and gave itself a chance to beat Ohio State at home on that last Saturday of the season. This Buckeye team that comes into Ann Arbor is one of the most dominant teams in modern college football history and potentially the best OSU squad that the Wolverines will have seen to this point. Michigan will be multiple-score underdogs in this game.
Yet, if it continues to play as loose and as well as it has, Michigan can make this a game and potentially put themselves into position to be the benefactors of a bounce that goes their way.
From there, we will see what happens.
This is going to be a week where media pundits will build up the Wolverines and talk themselves into thinking they have a chance, but then piling on and getting nasty again if they lose. Michigan simply needs to compete and keep it close to show that all of their hard work this season was not for nothing and that the gap is not nearly as large as it appears to be on paper between them and their rival.
If they somehow win this game, then we’re talking history on the 50th anniversary of Bo Schembechler’s 1969 team.
Personally, this season has taught me patience and to seek bigger picture answers as opposed to reacting in the moment. A lot of us have been frustrated with the lack of results through nearly five football seasons, namely no trips to Indianapolis or wins over OSU, but the truth of the matter is that Michigan hit a pretty hard reset button this year and in a lot of ways went back to the drawing board.
Time will tell if a step back in 2019 from Big Ten title contention will bring a healthier future, but it certainly feels that way. Perhaps OSU coming into Ann Arbor and blowing out the Wolverines would dampen those feelings, but we have seen enough evidence since late September that the changes Harbaugh made to his program were worthy ones and that he has put his faith — and his fate — in the hands of the right people.
This is about as impressive a coaching job as he has done since he arrived at Michigan and the Wolverines have never gone into the Ohio State game rolling quite like they are now. They need every single drop of that momentum heading in to this year’s edition of The Game, but Harbaugh’s team is giving itself a chance.
That’s all you can ask for.