Six quarters that lifted Michigan's moribund season

Sunday, October 27, 2019 - 12:35am

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Alexis Rankin/Daily

No one on the outside knows quite what happened at halftime in State College last weekend, and those on the inside don’t seem too keen on sharing. Those are moments that can be blown out of proportion, anyway.

But the team that walked out of that locker room, staring down a 21-7 deficit in the fire-breathing cauldron of Beaver Stadium, is not the same as the one that entered. That’s plainly clear.

What entered was an underwhelming offense and a mistake-prone defense, a defeatist squad with a downtrodden mentality, a coach under a fervent national microscope and a program unable to escape the pressure of its own weight. What exited, it appears, is a whole different football team — one that came inches from an historic comeback last week and dominated No. 8 Notre Dame in every facet of the game this week, smacking the Fighting Irish, 45-14.

“I think the second half of the Penn State game, I thought we found our stride,” said senior quarterback Shea Patterson on Saturday. “We realized after that game, going into this week, from Monday’s practice that offensively we’ve got to come out that way start to finish. We can’t come out flat and expect to make a heroic comeback in the end.”

In those six quarters, the Wolverines have outgained their two opponents 667 to 260, out-rushed them 379 to 60 and, most importantly, out-scored them 66 to 21. After turning the ball over 13 times in the six-and-a-half games prior, Michigan hasn’t turned it over once since — against two of the most turnover-happy defenses in the country. Patterson has looked far more in line with his 2018 self. The defense has evolved into the suffocating menace most expected.

To put it flatly: this is a team that has done what it’s wanted to two top-10 teams in a way it failed to do to a Conference USA foe and a Military Academy mere weeks prior.

“Yeah, I saw it coming,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Watching them prepare, watching them practice, watching the detail and the meetings. How important it was to them. Day in, day out work in practice. The growth, you can see it.”

The success has been rooted in many of the core tenants from last season. A coalescing offensive line has allowed just three sacks in the last two games, supplementing what’s quickly blossomed into a potent rushing attack. In a driving rain, Michigan racked up 57 rushing attempts, continuing to pound its running backs, daring a hapless Notre Dame side to stop it.

Junior Hassan Haskins tallied 149 rushing yards on 20 carries, plowing through — and hopping over — the Fighting Irish defense.

The Wolverines stamped their way to 5.9 yards per carry, tossing the elements aside and the game to rest from the outset. At halftime, they’d run the ball 28 times and thrown it just four. The score, 17-0, even belied the feeling of finality that had already set in by then. Michigan won this in a way that left no doubt as to who was the better side — and as to whether last week’s second half was any sort of anomaly.

“We’re taking leaps,” said sophomore linebacker Cameron McGrone, a burgeoning defensive star. “And I believe we've always had it, it was just us clicking and, like I said, at Penn State, I think we really found what our team can do and that we can do it whenever we want.”

For all the positive takeaways from that half, though, they still cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. The loss to the Nittany Lions is still a loss, and still comes with all the season-altering ramifications. Michigan still has two Big Ten defeats, and will still likely be locked out of postseason title chances.

What to make of this team-wide reinvention perhaps depends on your own conception of success going forward. It’s more than fair to quibble that this is all too-little, too-late.

But whatever this team figured out in a cagey locker room in Pennsylvania has made a demonstrable difference. From here, all it can control is the game it’s playing.

This win was no statement. No boisterous journey for revenge. No atonement for the two losses that clouded the season thus far.

Just business as always intended — and maybe a dose of therapy.

“I just thought we needed to come out, start to finish, and just play,” Patterson said. “Play the way we know how to play. I think really that’s kind of the first time, in all cylinders, we’ve played our best game. And when we do that, we’re really hard to beat.”