Just when all looked depleted, when the only source of intrigue for the Ohio State game was going to be the margin of defeat, Michigan lifted a moribund season from its already-constructed grave. In the process, it instilled just a kernel of that pesky, pesky thing called hope.
To be clear, the odds of an upset Saturday against the Buckeyes remain quite slim. They’re the No. 2 team in the nation, with one of the most prolific offenses of the last decade, for a reason. The Wolverines can be good — like, really good — and still lose by double-digits.
But there’s a path, however narrow, to Michigan winning The Game for just the second time in 16 years. A path to flip narratives and alter the rivalry.
That path begins with eliminating mistakes entirely. It sounds redundant and lazy: Play with no mistakes, and you’ll win. But you likely know the mistakes to which I’m referring.
People remember the 2016 game for one infamous (or famous, depending upon your perspective) spot, but the play before was a crucial defensive lapse. The Michigan defense let Curtis Samuel from its grasp, turning a would-be massive loss into a fourth-and-manageable situation. Only then did Barrett’s quarterback draw come into play.
In 2017, Josh Metellus dropped an easy interception up 14-0 in the second quarter. Ohio State subsequently scored 14 unanswered points, eventually pulling away for a 31-20 win. In 2018, tight end Zach Gentry dropped three passes, including a would-be touchdown that would’ve given his team a 10-7 lead, forcing them to settle for a field goal.
These are memorable snapshots of a larger point: When you’re playing a more talented team, one self-inflicted wound can be a death knell. This defense, Metellus in particular, harps on the word “execution” to a tedious degree, and in some ways it’s an empty cliche. But it’s also synonymous with the attention to detail required to stay in this game. Michigan cannot afford to lose the turnover battle, commit senseless penalties, make special teams errors — anything of the kind.
It must play a perfect game.
Michigan’s defense isn’t going to shut down Ohio State; it can’t give up 62 points again, either. If the Wolverines are going to win this game, they’ll have to win it in the 30s or 40s. Doing so requires an offense that can keep pace — take a blow on one possession, then turn around and deliver it on the next.
That was the biggest visceral difference last year. One offense moved down the field in chunks, using its athleticism to strain the defense. The other plodded down the field, unable to meet fire with fire. Michigan’s first two drives each exceeded 10 plays and churned five minutes of clock, despite amassing fewer than 55 yards. Each ended in field goals. Ohio State, meanwhile, had three touchdown drives in fewer than four minutes each. Suddenly, it was 21-6.
This Michigan offense has a firepower last year’s didn’t — and a quarterback absolutely dealing lately. Michigan’s averaged over 40 points and nearly 440 yards per game over the last six weeks. Senior quarterback Shea Patterson has elevated to a new level in that span, turning in back-to-back 350-plus-yard, four-plus-touchdown games. Michigan is only going to win this one if its offense rises to that threshold, matching Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and his group throughout.
The ingredients are there.
But even if all goes according to plan — if the Wolverines play a crisp, mistake-free game beginning to end — they could still lose. That’s how good the Buckeyes are.
Which is why Michigan could sure use something weird. Something from the football gods to indicate that the unceasing destruction that has spanned the last two decades. Something like … 1 to 3 inches of snow tentatively in the forecast for the weekend.
Any factor that would ostensibly negate a factor other than “which team is better” provides a benefit.
Can Michigan play its cleanest game of the Harbaugh era? Can this offense truly keep pace with the best offense in the country? Can the Wolverines rely on divine intervention in the form of an opportune snowstorm?
Will that quiver of hope nagging at your psyche right now blossom into jubilation mere days from now?
The odds sure are better than they were a month ago.