It was the kind of game in which Michigan has often found itself over the past few seasons. A tight, closely-contested affair that was there for the taking. A game in which a pivotal, clock-churning drive, or a key, momentum-killing defensive stop was all that was required to swing the outcome in Michigan’s favor. However, as well as Don Brown’s defense has played in totality, those defensive stops haven’t always come. And the offensive drives? They’ve proven even more difficult to come by. Ultimately, winnable games, like those against Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, South Carolina and others have all ended in disheartening losses.
This year’s season opener against Notre Dame followed a similar script. After Michigan’s defense finally found its footing and largely shut down the Irish in the second half, by the time Michigan’s offense got anything going, it was a case of too little, too late, and when time expired, the Wolverines found themselves on the wrong side of a 24-17 score. I wrote at the time that it was the continuation of a trend, and a disturbing one at that. For the Wolverines to prove they were moving forward as a team, they had to reverse that trend, something Michigan players vowed would happen. And in a typically, hard-fought, closely-contested first half against Wisconsin Saturday night, the Wolverines had their chance to do just that.
Michigan flipped that script two weeks ago against Northwestern, when the Wolverines came back from a 17-0 deficit to defeat the Wildcats, keyed by a late fourth quarter scoring drive. But no offense to Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats, that was Northwestern and this is Wisconsin. The Badgers may have struggled to a disappointing 4-1 record entering Saturday’s game, but they’re still Wisconsin. The Badgers have a typically loaded offensive line blocking for perhaps the most talented back in the Big Ten in sophomore Johnathon Taylor and feature a stout front seven against which it’s never easy to run. If ever there was a test for Michigan, Paul Chryst’s Badgers were it.
And so, up 13-7 at the half, Michigan found itself in a familiar position. Could the Wolverines keep the Badger offense off the field in the second half? And perhaps more importantly, could they do enough offensively to hold the Badgers at bay? To the surprise of many, that answer was a resounding “yes,” as the Wolverines rolled to a 38-13 victory. In perhaps the biggest victory of the Harbaugh era, Michigan dominated Wisconsin in the second half, running off 25 consecutive points to take control of the game.
But what was most surprising wasn’t that Michigan dominated Wisconsin so thoroughly, but how the Wolverines did so. Much was made of Wisconsin’s banged up secondary, and the expectation was that for Michigan to win, the Wolverines had to take to the air. Shea Patterson was efficient, connecting on 14 of 21 passes for 124 yards, but the Wolverines won this game the old-fashioned way, by grinding it out on the ground. Michigan’s much-maligned offensive line led the way, as the Wolverines gashed the Badgers for 320 rushing yards, including 237 in the decisive second half. It was the kind of performance that gave credence to the notion that Michigan’s offensive line play is improving and that new offensive line coach Ed Warriner is making a difference.
But while it was an impressive performance, it was just one game. For the Michigan’s offensive line to begin backing up Karan Higdon’s assertion that the Wolverines have the best offensive line in the country, they’ll have to prove themselves again. And they won’t have to wait long for that chance, with Michigan traveling to East Lansing this weekend to play Michigan State.
Michigan State has also struggled this season, particularly on offense, as with LJ Scott dinged up, Brian Lewerke and company have struggled to find their groove. However, as the Spartans proved in their 21-17 victory over Penn State, reports of their demise are greatly exaggerated. And while the Spartans have struggled offensively, they’ve had no such problems on the other side of the ball. Led by a tough, physical front seven, the Michigan State defense makes life difficult for anyone trying to run on Mark Dantonio’s Spartans. Penn State may have finished with 205 yards on the ground, but take away two long runs (totaling 126 yards), and the Nittany Lions were largely held in check by the stingy Spartan defense - a unit that will provide the stiffest challenge yet for Michigan and its offensive line.
After the game, Michigan players refused to be goaded into conceding that the Michigan State game held any additional significance, other than being another conference game against a tough opponent. All coach Jim Harbaugh would say was, “We’ll be really intense (for the match-up).” Michigan will play with plenty of intensity, there is little doubt of that. But will the Wolverines have the wherewithal to battle the Spartans in the trenches? Because, as is often the case when Michigan and Michigan State do battle, that’s where the game will ultimately be decided. If Michigan can handle the Spartans up front, not only will Higdon’s assertion seem a little less outlandish, but it might also be time to start believing that this is a different Michigan team.