As Saturday afternoon faded into night, nobody in the Michigan locker room wanted to talk about Indiana.
The Wolverines were just minutes removed from beating the Hoosiers, 39-14, for their fourth-straight 25-point win, but nobody cared. Beating Indiana — something Michigan has done 24 straight times — does not define a season. It doesn’t erase the pain of a season that slipped away last November in Columbus, or the pain of Big Ten title hopes that vanished last month in State College.
For four weeks, the Wolverines could dominate, but they couldn’t rewrite their legacies. Saturday afternoon, they can do just that.
“There’s no bigger stage in college football than Ohio State-Michigan,” said senior Ben Bredeson. “That’s why we all come to the respective schools is to play championship football and with that, play each other, be a part of the greatest rivalry in college football.”
A month ago, the thought that Michigan could win this game — against the nation’s No. 2 team, top scoring offense and top total defense — would have been laughable. The big debate back then was whether the Wolverines were going to win seven games or eight, bound for some consolation bowl.
Since then, the conversation has been flipped on its head. That’s not to say Michigan is expected to win — the Wolverines are still 9.5-point underdogs. But they enter Saturday with a pulse, able to espouse their confidence and not fill the room with laughter.
For that, they have their offense to thank, with 166 points over the last four games. Michigan has scored at least 38 points in all four, a stretch that included a top-10 team, an in-state rival and 7-3 Indiana.
Back when Michigan was in free fall, that same offense was seen as the culprit, floundering and confused. “As a whole group, we don’t an identity yet,” said senior tight end Nick Eubanks after the Wolverines’ 35-14 loss to Wisconsin in September, summing up what lay in plain sight back then.
Now, Eubanks compares Michigan’s offense to a plane barreling down the runway, ready for takeoff.
“Just standing behind our quarterback, Shea Patterson (made this happen), in terms of him leading us,” Eubanks said Monday. “He found his groove and being us, as a team, encouraging him, having faith in him. Just being there for him, when times were bad for him. And that’s one thing that he followed through with us, and look where we’re at now.”
Patterson’s play, with 750 yards and nine touchdowns in the last two weeks, has been a catalyst, to be sure. But the explanations are numerous. Josh Gattis getting comfortable as a play caller. The receiver corps hitting its stride. Hassan Haskins turning into a lead back.
It’s all contributed to what Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called, “an improving team” Monday afternoon.
“Ascending team,” Harbaugh continued. “Playing really good football. Could name a number of the position groups that I think are playing outstanding.”
Minutes later, Bredeson echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“There was a learning curve in there at the beginning of the season, trying to transition from practice speed to game speed,” Bredeson said. “But like we see now, once we finally figured out the decision making and the reaction by everybody in game-like situations, this offense is rolling.”
It builds up to the team’s current mentality, a quiet but justified confidence that it can hang with the Buckeyes. It builds up to this game, because this is the game that can make the Wolverines’ offensive rebirth matter, regardless of vanquished national championship aspirations.
“Any time that you beat Ohio State or they beat us, it’s considered a good season at the respective schools,” Bredeson said.
Lose on Saturday and the last four games will be forgotten to history, a neat find deep in Michigan’s Sports Reference pages someday. Win and the program’s entire status is redefined with its best season since … 2011? 2004? 1997? Bueller?
That’s the burden that the Wolverines’ offense is tasked with Saturday — and they know it.
“Obviously there’s other games on the schedule,” Bredeson said. “But we all know which one’s the most important.”