MINNEAPOLIS — Flash back to Saturday morning.
Imagine someone told you the final score of the Michigan-Minnesota football game would be 29-6, one team would go the whole first quarter without a first down, the winning quarterback wouldn’t turn the ball over and one team would dominate the game.
Who would you predict had won?
Before Saturday, this Michigan football team showed few signs it could put together the kind of complete performance it did at Minnesota.
Just a week ago, the defense allowed 48 points in a game the Wolverines needed to win to keep their 33-year bowl streak alive.
On Saturday, for the first time in decades, Michigan had no postseason aspirations to play for.
But the Wolverines also had everything to play for. A bulletin board in the hallway of Schembechler Hall last week read, “Seize the day. Play for pride. We are Michigan.”
With its back against the wall, Michigan couldn’t respond to the adversity at Purdue. But with that wall gone, the team played loose, and the final score showed it.
The hard question is whether what happened Saturday was because this team had no pressure or because the progress being made in practice finally showed up in the game.
And what happened at the Metrodome Saturday afternoon can’t be confined to one interpretation.
The defense played inspired.
The unit allowed just one first down in the first half. After weeks of being run over, the defense stood firm and played physical. Even for a veteran group, the confidence from shutting down the opposition will carry over to the final two games.
Looking forward, will the defense stay inspired?
Before this season, no Michigan defense had allowed more than 40 points twice in a season. On Saturday, the defense allowed just a pair of field goals. Big plays have killed the unit all season, but on Saturday, the defense didn’t allow a play of longer than 30 yards. It made one wonder where this type of performance was earlier in the year and whether the Wolverines will be able to repeat it in the season’s final weeks.
The quarterbacks played inspired.
Redshirt sophomore Nick Sheridan played within himself. He made good decisions, didn’t turn the ball over and maintained his composure when the Metrodome crowd caused him to take two first-half timeouts. Quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said this was the Sheridan he saw in summer camp, the same quarterback that won the starting spot for the season opener.
Looking forward, will the quarterbacks stay inspired?
If the Wolverines had that kind of mistake-free football from the quarterbacks earlier in the year, this team probably wouldn’t be spending the bowl season on the couch. Sheridan looked much more comfortable and composed running the offense against Minnesota than he had in any of his previous appearances. But was that an anomaly, or has he actually progressed as a quarterback?
Michigan played inspired
The offense, defense and special teams didn’t make the mistakes against Minnesota that cost the team in previous games. And when one of those phases made a mistake, another one picked up the slack. Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said Saturday his team was solid in each of those phases and played well the entire game. It outscored its opponent in all four quarters for the first time this season..
Looking forward, will Michigan stay inspired?
Rodriguez says every week that his team makes progress Sunday to Friday, but it hasn’t shown up on Saturdays. This Saturday, progress showed. But the question is whether that was genuine progress?
It’s something new for Wolverine fans to think about — to see a team make this kind of progress through the season, to have a defense go from allowing seven touchdowns last week to allowing none this week.
Fans expect Michigan to start strong and continue throughout the season. But as teams from less successful programs will tell you, when the realistic goal isn’t a national championship, you have to embrace the smaller victories. And for this year’s Michigan team, that’s what the Minnesota game represents.
— Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.