On the first Saturday of October, Michigan was in a state of emergency.
At the same time of night, under the same rainy Ann Arbor sky, the Wolverines fell 14-10 to then-unranked Michigan State. It was only one loss, but it seemed to tell the tale of their season.
Amid a torrential downpour, they didn’t run the ball when they should have, they tried to force passes when they weren’t there and they turned the ball over when they couldn’t afford to.
For a Michigan team that had played better than expected to that point of the season, that game showed the Wolverines weren’t quite there yet.
But on the first Saturday of November, Michigan wrote a different tale, putting the pieces together in a 33-10 win over Minnesota.
As a thunderstorm descended upon Michigan Stadium an hour before kickoff, weather could have been a factor blamed for the outcome of the game. It had been on that October night, as fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn threw an interception on three consecutive drives.
The Wolverines didn’t have to play in the rain in November, though. Even if they did, this time, they would have been prepared.
It all started with the running game, which has experienced its fair share of ups-and-downs this season. Its performance against the Spartans was certainly one of those downs. Junior Karan Higdon and sophomore Chris Evans combined for just 92 yards and failed to find the end zone. Fifth-year senior Ty Isaac, the third member of that rotation, let a game-changing fumble fall out of his grasp and sat on the bench for much of the rest of the night.
But against Minnesota, the ground game set the tone early and often, bursting through and running laps around the Golden Gophers’ defense. Higdon and Evans had arguably their best game of the year as individuals. Together, Michigan undoubtedly had its best.
Higdon ran for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Evans came close with 191 yards and two touchdowns of his own. And they weren’t easy scores, either. The duo just made them look easy.
Minnesota had no answers for the duo’s combination of power and speed — Higdon the former and Evans the latter. Higdon busted out a 77-yard touchdown and then dragged a defender five yards into the end zone for another. Evans broke free on similar plays, leaving everyone in the dust on 60 and 67-yard runs.
“Karan and Chris had spectacular runs,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “… We kept feeding the running game. It was working.”
The two had plenty of help along the way. In a night-and-day difference from where the unit was a month ago, the offensive line made its presence felt, setting up each of those big plays.
The Golden Gophers couldn’t match the Wolverines’ physicality at the line of scrimmage, as Michigan’s offensive line opened up gaping holes and allowed Higdon and Evans to explode.
“That was a game for the ages if you’re an offensive lineman,” Harbaugh said.
While the ground game gained a season-high 371 yards, redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters — O’Korn’s replacement — didn’t have all that much to do. In his first collegiate start, the Wolverines could have tried to make it all about him, designing a game plan centered on the passing game.
But they prioritized the passing game against Michigan State, and it didn’t end well. They had no intention of making that same mistake against Minnesota.
“We were running the ball so well, I think 10 yards a rush per attempt,” Harbaugh said. “… I’m sure if we did it any other way, you would’ve thought, ‘Why didn’t we run the ball more?’”
Peters did enough with the opportunities he was given, leading a scoring drive on Michigan’s first offensive series that was capped off by a 20-yard throwback screen pass to sophomore tight end Sean McKeon.
And he never gave up possession of the football, even when faced with heavy pressure on three sacks. With free runners bearing down on his blind side, Peters had the wherewithal to sense the danger and tuck the ball into his chest to prevent a strip sack. That was all the Wolverines needed him to do.
With a dependable ground game, a competent line and a steady quarterback, Michigan’s offense showed more life than it has all season. For a Wolverine team that has allowed its defense to carry much of the load, Saturday night showed that the offense can do the same.
It may have come an hour late, but Saturday night, the game Michigan has been waiting for finally arrived.
The Wolverines may have lost the Paul Bunyan Trophy, but they retained the Little Brown Jug. And in doing so, Michigan demonstrated that the story of its season hasn’t been fully written yet.
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