The tension in the Big House was palpable in the dwindling minutes of the third quarter of Saturday’s Michigan football game. The fans, all 108,683 of them, were attempting to complete an entire cycle of the traditional Michigan Stadium wave.
The first time around, they raised their arms in normal wave fashion, rhythmically lifting themselves from their benches only to sit back down a moment later. They transitioned into a slow-motion wave and then a fast wave that flashed around the stadium in a blur. When that lap was finished, they reversed directions and sent the wave around the stadium the other way. It was nice and easy, creating a relaxed atmosphere that led to reverberating cheers.
But then came the tough part: the split wave. It was a daring feat, one that only the bravest fans could pull off. “Oohs” and “aahs” were audible in the crowd. The fans sent the wave in two opposite directions at the same time, until the two separate waves met in the middle and continued on their respective paths. The stadium roared. They’d pulled off the most difficult feat of them all.
Beneath them, the Wolverines were playing a game, and nobody cared.
It was a beautiful kind of apathy. For the first time in years, the reason people didn’t care wasn’t because the students were too drunk or the alumni too disgruntled at the prospect of another lost season.
It was because nobody in Michigan Stadium experienced a second of doubt Saturday that the Wolverines could possibly lose to UNLV. This might seem trivial to older Michigan fans, the ones who have lived most of their lives watching Michigan beat the slobber out of inferior opponents.
But for several years now, those moments of supreme confidence have disappeared. Sure, Jake Rudock might not have played to your liking, and Michigan should probably have converted on that pesky drive when it ran the ball on 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1. But look at that scoreboard! It read, “Michigan 21, UNLV 0.”
Cue the wave.
When was the last time Michigan won two games in a row by at least three touchdowns like it has the last two weekends? October 2012. This year’s seniors were freshmen, and the Wolverines trounced an inept Illinois team on Oct. 13 for the second of those three-touchdown wins. Three years ago, it poured throughout the day, just like it did before Saturday’s game. But Saturday, the rain dissipated just in time for Jim Harbaugh to run onto the field to coach the Wolverines at home for the second time.
There are naysayers who claim that Harbaugh hasn’t done anything yet, that all of the hype is overblown for somebody who probably won’t even win the Big Ten for a few years. But if you were at the Big House on Saturday, you know that something is different. It feels different.
For two straight weeks, you’ve been able to watch Michigan cruise past a lesser team and then go home and sit on your couch and watch as other historically proud programs struggle against MAC teams and the like. Did you see that Ohio State game? Spoiler alert: The Buckeyes won, but come on. Those fans weren’t doing the wave in the third quarter.
For once, the team threatened by an upset wasn’t Michigan. There won’t be an Appalachian State or an Akron or a Toledo this year. There haven’t been nails gnawed to the point of blood or hair ripped from the scalp because of close games in the fourth quarter against a weak non-conference opponent.
For the first time in too long, things have unfolded exactly the way they were supposed to, two weeks in a row. UNLV was overmatched this week, and so was Oregon State last week.
Twice, Michigan gave you a Saturday free of worry. Twice, the other side had no hope, save for a few minutes in the first quarter when Oregon State stood a slight chance.
The wins were so easy, so automatic, that Ryan Glasgow was angry that Michigan had allowed UNLV to score at all, and Harbaugh ranted that he will never use the word satisfied in terms of football, that even blowout wins aren’t enough.
The Wolverines are still a rebuilding team, far from a finished product. Harbaugh didn’t recruit most of the athletes on the field, and even the most experienced Michigan players have barely had a taste of winning at the college level. They have almost lost to Akron and Connecticut in the final minutes of games, and they have been destroyed by better teams from the first quarter on. But for two games in September, in the year when everything is supposed to be changing, the Wolverines showed signs of being a competent football team.
“They did what we asked them to do, and that was take care of business,” Harbaugh said.
It might not seem like much, but that’s exactly what the Wolverines needed the last two weeks. Nobody knows how this team will deal with Big Ten play or even a solid BYU team next week. Michigan’s flaws could rear their ugly heads, or the confidence from two blowout wins could create momentum.
But just in case things turn out well, the fans will be ready.
They’ve already had practice doing the wave.
Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MaxACohen.