Jim Harbaugh called the game's outcome unfortunate. Michigan players, at least those able to speak after the game, said the game's ending had yet to sink in. The same could be said for the majority of those in attendance, as Michigan Stadium, as loud as it's been in years, fell to near silence after a final play that even Spartan players had trouble believing. We all know what happened by now, after having seemingly wrapped up a dogfight of a game against its bitter rival, Michigan did the only thing it couldn't do - it bungled the game's final play so badly that Michigan State not only got the ball back, but scored with no time remaining on the clock. Yet, even after such a heartbreaking loss, after so shockingly losing a game it had all but won (and in the process securing its seventh loss in eight years to the Spartans), Michigan's performance ultimately contained more positives than negatives.
Despite the fact that the Wolverines were tied or in the lead for the first 59 minutes and 59 seconds of the game, the eye test told you that Michigan State is still the better team. The Spartan offensive line, dinged up or not, is mammoth, making some NFL lines look small by comparison. Michigan State's defensive line bottled up the Michigan running game, Spartan receivers were open all day and quarterback Connor Cook seemed to make every big play he needed to make (save one). Yet despite all of that, despite rushing for a paltry 62 yards, despite passing for a mere 168 and failing again to connect on passes to open receivers downfield, despite defensive lapses that included allowing a 74-yard completion to a fullback, despite what seemed like more penalties and foolish plays than they had committed all season, the Wolverines not only put themselves in a position to win, they put themselves in a position in which they almost couldn't lose. Almost.
This is not another "Michigan is Back" article. Nor is it one proclaiming the return of the "natural order" in the state of Michigan. Michigan State isn't going anywhere, at least not as long as Mark Dantonio is around. And Dantonio isn't going anywhere. But this game nonetheless showed that path that Michigan is on.
Michigan had been criticized by some for having fattened up on inferior teams this season, and the fact that the Wolverines ultimately fell to the Spartans gave some credence to that argument, as a Wolverine team that had famously shut out its last three opponents surrendered 386 total yards and 27 points to the Spartans. But you also saw a Wolverines team, that, as its coach said after the game, "played their guts out" and made enough plays to put itself in a position to beat a very good Spartan team. These may have largely been the same players who lost to the Spartans in East Lansing last year, but it was not the same team.
Despite the fact that improvement was expected under Harbaugh, Michigan has played far better, far sooner than almost anyone could have imagined. And while much has been made of the hype that Harbaugh has received since arriving at Michigan, his track record speaks for itself. Michigan is already playing at a much higher level and executing much better than it ever did under Brady Hoke, and that improvement will continue. A surprisingly positive Harbaugh said after the game that this loss will "put steel in the spine" of the Wolverines and will make Michigan a better team. There's little reason to doubt him.