Six games into the season, Michigan wasn't looking for a season defining victory as much as it was looking to define what kind of team it is. Is Michigan as bad as it looked against Alabama, and to a lesser extent, Air Force? Or is it as good as it looked against Purdue and Illinois? More specifically, can Michigan run as effectively against a good defensive team as it did against the Boilermakers and Illini? And can Michigan mount a consistent, effective passing game? Saturday's game against talented but struggling Michigan State, a team that's also searching for its identity, was expected to go a long way toward answering these questions.
So now that it's over and Michigan pulled out a hard fought, 12-10 victory over the Spartans, what did we learn about the Wolverines? For openers, Michigan's defense is good. Sure, a more accurate quarterback may have had more luck against the Michigan secondary, but Michigan's defensive front held up against Michigan State's power running game, something many thought it couldn't do, holding Le'Veon Bell to just 68 yards on the day and stopping him and the Spartans on a crucial third-and-short late in the fourth quarter. Seven games into the season, the defense in Greg Mattison's second year is looking a lot like the defense in his first year. And Jake Ryan is emerging as a star for the Wolverines.
But what of the offense? Was Michigan able to run on the Spartans? No ... and yes. Michigan State bottled up Michigan most of the afternoon, as Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint rarely found open running lanes. Yet, Robinson rushed for nearly 100 yards and the Wolverines were able to amass 163 yards on the ground. As for the passing game, it was anything but efficient. Robinson completed less than half of his passes for only 163 yards, and more than once missed open receivers. Yet, other than the game winning kick, the game's biggest play was Robinson's 20-yard strike to Drew Dileo, a play that put the Wolverines in position to attempt the kick. Robinson threaded that final pass into an opening so small, watching the replay it looks like a pass he shouldn't have even attempted. It often wasn't pretty, in fact, it almost never was, but in the game's biggest moment, Robinson threw his best pass of the day, and it was his arm and not his legs that ultimately put the Wolverines in position to win.
So perhaps it's fitting that a game so closely contested and where the defenses outshone the offenses, that there were no clear answers to these questions. Or could it be, in the words of Denny Green, that Michigan is who we thought they were. Perhaps we know the identity of this team after all. That as much as we'd like to label Michigan a power running team or one that can or can't pass, this is what we have: A team with a strong defense and an offense that is often not pretty, but ultimately successful. This is a team of grinders that plays hard and stays in games. After all, Michigan was never really out of the Notre Dame game, despite committing six turnovers.
More than once this year, Brady Hoke has said that one of the best qualities of this team is its ability battle and to continue fighting. And while that sounds cliché (and based on how poorly the team has played at times during the season, you may say that that's all Hoke could say), that doesn't mean it's not true, or that it's not an admirable trait. The talent will come. In a couple of years, Michigan will have the personnel in place to be among the nation's best teams. But it's not there yet. And until then, what we have is a Michigan team that battles, grinds and hangs around to the finish, and will most likely stay in the hunt for the Big Ten championship all season.