In 1997, The Daily football beat predicted that Michigan would finish the season 7-5.
They predicted the Wolverines would lose to Northwestern, Minnesota and Wisconsin and finish fourth in the Big Ten with an appearance in a meaningless bowl game.
And then Michigan went to Penn State.
It went into the early-November game undefeated, but questions remained about how good the team actually was: Was it a classic Michigan ‘just enough to stay competitive in the Big Ten’ good or were fans looking at a trip to Pasadena?
By halftime, those questions were answered. The Wolverines turned what was supposed to be a competitive grudge-match into a 24-0 slashing in the first two quarters.
“That’s the moment where I was like, ‘Wow, they could do this. This could happen,’ ” former Daily football writer Nick Cotsonika told The Daily. “And Bo Schembechler was so fired up. He was in the press box (because of his role in the athletic department). … And he just looked at me, facing me. He grabbed both my shoulders, shook me and then walked away. Not a word. Just grabbed me, shook me and walked away. There was this feeling like ‘Oh my god, right? What is going on?’ ”
After the game, with a final score of 34-8, Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno said that Michigan had “as much right to be voted No. 1 as any team in the country.”
That week, the Wolverines jumped from No. 4 to No. 1, a position they held onto through the remainder of their undefeated season and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
This year, our football beat predicted Michigan would end 8-4. They thought the Wolverines’ worst losses would be against Indiana, Northwestern and Maryland, and they’d finish fourth in the Big Ten East with a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl. They really wanted to go to Las Vegas.
And then Michigan went to Penn State.
The 21-17 game was much closer to what Cotsonika expected the 1997 game to be — a hard-fought, down-to-the-wire battle — and maybe even more competitive than the Wolverines were expecting coming into it on Saturday. After methodically clawing their way to an eight-point lead by the start of the fourth quarter, the Wolverines found themselves tied, 14-14, with less than eight minutes to play.
Michigan had been there before. Two weeks ago, the Wolverines blew a 16-point lead in a top 10 road game in East Lansing. They fumbled a 17-17 tie against the Spartans at home last season. And blew a seven-point lead against Ohio State in 2017. And an eight-point lead in Iowa City in 2016. And then a 10-point lead over the Buckeyes two weeks later. And a six-point lead over No. 7 Michigan State the year before that.
The idea that Harbaugh can’t win on the road has been beaten to death so many times that it feels more like an immutable fact than a cliché. But, with four minutes left on the clock, Erick All took the first step to rewriting that narrative.
On 2nd-and-10 in what would become the last scoring drive of the game, junior quarterback Cade McNamara found All on a crossing route. The junior tight end cut up the field, outrunning two Penn State defenders en route to the end zone.
“I want to give Michigan a bunch of credit, obviously a really good football team that we battled for four quarters,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin told reporters on Saturday. “… (Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo), you can make the argument maybe the best combination of two D-ends of the country.”
It wasn’t a watershed moment that’s going to lead to a national title. I’d be hard-pressed to find an argument comparing Hutchinson to Charles Woodson, Michigan already has one loss with another likely on the horizon and — potentially most crucially — college football is a totally different landscape than it was in the late 1990s.
But the Wolverines are still returning to Ann Arbor with higher stakes, one of the biggest road wins of Harbaugh’s tenure and status as at least a semi-serious playoff contender. Pending a Michigan State loss in Columbus next weekend and a Michigan win in College Park, the Wolverines’ game against Ohio State after Thanksgiving will be a de facto Big Ten East title bout. But, regardless of what happens down the line, this win carries weight.
With a lot to prove coming off of a historically-low 2-4 season, Harbaugh showed not only can he win on the road, but, more importantly, his team can come through with a high-pressure, fourth quarter win late in the season.
A win like Saturday validates athletic director Warde Manuel’s decision to bring Harbaugh back. And it shows that all the changes his program’s gone through since last year have proven it’s moving in the right direction.
This might not be the year Harbaugh beats the Buckeyes, but he could come pretty damn close. Only one of Michigan’s past six contests against the Buckeyes have been decided by less than a touchdown. Win or lose, the Wolverines could be looking at their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 2007. Win or lose, this season could be the turning point that thrusts Harbaugh’s program into the upper echelon of college football.
“We’re not mediocre,” safety Marcus Ray said of his team after the 1997 Penn State win. “And we’re not done yet.”
Twenty-four years later, neither are these Wolverines.
Managing Sports Editor Lane Kizziah can be reached on Twitter @KizziahLane.