Michigan played its best football game of the season Saturday. Michigan also lost, notching a second Big Ten defeat, which equates to something of a death knell in modern college football.

It’s difficult to square these two distinct facts, so I won’t try to do so. There are surely hot takes to be read, and this won’t be one. Josh Gattis’ offense looked better, particularly in the second half. Shea Patterson offered his best performance of the season. After an early speed bump, the Wolverines’ defense settled in quite comfortably. The talent of this team is present — and, at times, quite obvious.

Michigan outgained Penn State, 417 to 283, and could have easily posted 35-plus points had it capitalized on five drives inside Nittany Lions territory that resulted in zero points. It’s a game the Wolverines probably should have won. Where have we heard that before?

This column obviously takes on a whole different tenor if Ronnie Bell catches that pass in the end zone, if a couple 50/50 calls go Michigan’s way, if Patterson doesn’t errantly throw an interception on the screen pass in the second quarter. We could entertain these equivocations all day.

All that’s left to say — after a game which will mark Jim Harbaugh’s seventh loss to a ranked opponent on the road in eight tries and his eighth loss in eight games as an underdog — is that there are no more moral victories. This is Year Five. Half a decade into what should have been a golden age of Michigan football, the Wolverines will have not a thing to show for it. This program is not what it thinks it is, plain and simple.

The second half against Penn State showed glimpses of what this team could be if it ever reached its apex. Patterson was in a groove, dealing to his trove of weapons. The offense had tempo and purpose, wearing down a Nittany Lions defense that entered the game top 10 in SP+ defense. The defense was as aggressive and imposing as it perceives itself. It was at once a glimmer of hope, and a cruel twist of the knife — the full comeback ending mere yards shy, No. 7 Penn State escaping with a 28-21 win.

The performance in the second half Saturday, one of the best halves of football this team has played in years, changes nothing. Just because Harbaugh’s team surpassed the menial expectations it set for itself through the first six games does not excuse another in a remarkably consistent line of disappointments. 

“I’m not gonna sit down and feel sorry for ourselves,” said junior defensive end Kwity Paye. “We still have a lot of big teams to play — we have Notre Dame, a ranked team, Ohio State, a ranked team. There’s still plenty of opportunity to be able to go out and finish the season great.”

You’d expect a player of Paye’s maturity to say that, of course, and it’s not entirely untrue. This team could quite possibly run the table to Ohio State; it opened as a slight favorite over No. 8 Notre Dame next weekend, and will almost certainly be favored against Michigan State, Indiana and Maryland. Winning those and then capping the year with a win over the Buckeyes would constitute some sort of successful season, if unconventional and still hollow.

“Just complimented them on the effort they gave, the character they showed,” Harbaugh said, on what he told his team after the game. “Hold their heads high and come back at it again on Monday.”

Added senior VIPER Khaleke Hudson: “We’ve just got to move onto the next day. We’ve got to work even harder in practice and we’ve just got to stay on top of our film work and keep trusting our guys.”

It’s tiresome to hear, and must be more tiresome to live. There are still meaningful prisms through which to view the rest of the season. Increased opportunities for promising young players — the Cam McGrones, Zach Charbonnets, Daxton Hills, Chris Hintons scattered about the roster — will help enlighten present and future talent. Wins over Michigan State (a requirement) and Ohio State (a bonus) would certainly do wonders to quell the angst in and around the team. A bowl win for the first time since 2015 would mean something, to be sure.

But there are no more moral victories left to deduce anymore. All that counts are the literal ones. And in the biggest moments, those remain absent.

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