Hassan Haskins broke free, found his gap and exploited it. He’d done this before, but this time, there was an encore. Haskins jumped into the air and over his defender, picking up a few extra yards in the process.
That run provided 20 of the Michigan football team’s 303 rushing yards of the night, 149 of which came courtesy of Haskins. But the reality was it didn’t really matter who got the handoff. The Wolverines’ offensive line mauled Notre Dame’s front seven, opening up gaping holes for Michigan to run through. On a night so rainy the cheerleaders played slip and slide in the end zone, a potent running game was vital.
Last year against the Irish, that run game was conspicuously absent. The Wolverines rushed for just 58 yards on 33 attempts en route to a 24-17 loss in South Bend, Ind. After promises of offensive line improvement under then-new coach Ed Warinner, that unit struggled, with any potential running holes sufficiently plugged before they opened. The pass protection was even worse, allowing three sacks and six quarterback hurries.
On Saturday, after Michigan got a shot at revenge, the situation was like night and day. Haskins praised his offensive line for opening up the gaps he ran through. The line’s stout play showed in the success of the running game, with 303 rushing yards the most the Wolverines have had this season. The pass protection was markedly better, allowing two sacks and no quarterback hurries.
“We expected to run the ball a lot,” said senior guard Michael Onwenu. “But a lot of holes were open, more so than we thought. The backs were shifting, a lot of motion and whatnot, so we expected that, but it was attacking the holes faster than we thought, so we adjusted.”
Even backup center Steven Spanellis got in on the action, continuing to block his man after both went out of bounds in the fourth quarter. It was a play so memorable that it got a shoutout from Charles Woodson on Twitter.
If last year’s matchup with the Irish was a re-affirmation of the narratives that have surrounded Harbaugh during his tenure — inability to beat rivals, starting slow, underperformance in big moments — Saturday’s 45-14 blowout win took those narratives and flipped them on their head.
“It’s a feeling that I know I’ll remember for — and I’m sure everybody in the locker room will,” said senior quarterback Shea Patterson. “I was just so happy to be a part of that and I feel like as a group we’re just doing great especially since last year left a bit of a sour taste. Just very proud of ourselves.”
Michigan beat the eighth-ranked team in the country handily. The offensive line played like one that returned four All-Big Ten starters. And this time, the Wolverines weren’t the ones that started slow.
Last year, Michigan went down 21-3 early and spent the whole game playing from behind. The Wolverines scored two more touchdowns after that and made it a close game. But it’s hard to win like that, especially against a rival, and even more so against an opponent with Playoff aspirations of its own.
On Saturday, the Wolverines were the ones that went up early — leading 17-0 at halftime. The offense did its part while the defense clamped down and dampened the Irish’s hopes of a comeback.
“Our problem, especially as a team — not just as a defense — is that we start slow,” said senior safety Josh Metellus. “We start slow and once we pick it up, it’s hard to stop us. Offensively, it’s hard to stop us, hard to put a cap on it. But once we started fast in that first quarter and we didn’t give up a first-quarter touchdown or any first-quarter points, I knew that we’d be able to hold on through the rest of the game.”
And in thoroughly flipping the script on last year’s frustrating loss, Michigan also gave itself a blueprint. This is how it can start to change those narratives. This is how it can beat rivals and top teams. This is what it’s capable of doing.
Though it’s a little too late for those Playoff hopes, or even a conference championship, the Wolverines still have two rivalry games left on the schedule — against two opponents that have left particularly bad tastes in their mouths the past five years.
With its statement against Notre Dame, Michigan got more than just a marquee win. If it can follow the path it forged on Saturday, it could start to reverse the narratives it’s struggled so much to escape.