Cesar Ruiz heard the question, then he cracked a smile.
Do you guys feel like you wrote a memorable chapter in this rivalry tonight?
The junior center responded immediately: “Um, yes.”
Last week, Michigan got its second loss at Penn State, effectively ending any hopes of a Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff. In the days leading up to the Wolverines’ matchup with Notre Dame, the biggest question was clear: What is there still to play for?
Michigan players insisted there was still plenty, most of all the chance to beat their rivals, but it was still a little hard to believe. At least, until Hassan Haskins ran 25 yards — several with a tackler on his back — on the Wolverines’ second drive of the game, one that eventually ended in a Zach Charbonnet touchdown.
And as the heavens descended on Ann Arbor, Michigan seemed unfazed. An offense that had struggled for explosive plays all year ripped off four 20-plus yard runs in the first half alone. The Wolverines (6-2 overall, 3-2 Big Ten) rode that run game and their typical stingy defense to a 45-14 win over No. 8 Notre Dame (5-2) in arguably the most impressive win of the Jim Harbaugh era.
“We realized after (last week), going into this week for Monday’s practice that offensively, we’ve gotta come out that way from start to finish,” said senior quarterback Shea Patterson. “You can’t come out flat and expect to make a comeback in the end. They helped out our defense, our defense played lights out tonight. I thought we executed all night offensively and I think the results show for themselves.”
Though Michigan had to settle for a field goal on its first drive, it made one thing clear: it was run-it-down-their-throats time.
Patterson didn’t complete a pass until the second quarter, after his team was already up 10-0 — and with the rainy conditions, it was probably for the better. After the field goal, the Wolverines scored touchdowns on two straight drives, both by freshman running back Zach Charbonnet. And after he pulled a defender with him on the first of those two drives, Haskins hurdled his would-be tackler in the second, an encore to a 20-yard rush that sent 110,000 fans in maize ponchos into a frenzy.
“We said in the locker room, we knew what kind of game it was gonna be,” Ruiz said. “We changed the openers a little bit. We knew we were gonna be ground and pounding a lot today. It’s the game we’ve been waiting for. We love running the ball. And just, we knew today was gonna be the day we were gonna be able to showcase it.”
Haskins finished with 149 yards on 20 attempts, a career high, while Charbonnet added 74 yards on 15 attempts for two touchdowns and tied a program-record nine touchdowns for a freshman running back.
As the rain slowed in the third quarter, so did Michigan — going three-and-out on three consecutive drives and then giving up a touchdown to cut its lead to 10. But the Wolverines stayed the course, coming back for a touchdown drive that included a Haskins 49-yard rush to put them up, 24-7. Then, they opened up the passing game and ran up the score with three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Through the entire game, the Wolverines found an offensive identity and stuck to it, never deviating from the run, even when those drives stalled in the third quarter. Notre Dame did the opposite, looking befuddled with every move Michigan made. Book readied to throw, even with pass-rushers in his face on nearly every play, even when the ball slipped around as rain continued to fall.
With their fierce running game, the Wolverines answered the questions of offensive identity that have surrounded them all season. They also answered the question of whether a rivalry win was enough of a motivation for a team whose goals were much loftier.
As Michigan scored at will until the clock ran out, the answer to that question went without saying.