This college football season has been somewhat of an odyssey for Michigan. Boasting a shiny, new offense, Michigan was the talk of the offseason and the pre-season favorite to win the Big Ten. With quarterback Shea Patterson returning to lead the way and an abundance of talented skill position players at his disposal, this was going to be the Wolverines’ year. Or so it was thought.
Michigan didn’t exactly hit the ground running, however. The Wolverines barely escaped an upset bid by Army in August and were humbled by Wisconsin in a wire-to-wire blowout in September. Michigan’s struggles, particularly moving the ball, made for a disconcerting autumn in Ann Arbor.
To say the natives were restless after the Wisconsin game would be putting it mildly. Seemingly overnight, the lunatic fringe of the Michigan fan base questioned whether head coach Jim Harbaugh was the right man for job. After defeating Iowa 10-3, Harbaugh said that he believed the Wolverines were close to being where they needed to be offensively. Asked in what way they were close, Harbaugh doubled down, responding, “In every way.” After finding the end zone just once and netting fewer than 300 yards of total offense, Harbaugh was ridiculed for his assessment of his offense. Based on Michigan’s performance up to that point in the season, it wasn’t hard to see why. Michigan just couldn’t get anything going offensively. Through five games, Michigan’s new offense was downright offensive.
Fortunately for Michigan, its defense was performing well. With an attacking defensive front led by Josh Uche, Kwitty Paye and Aiden Hutchinson, the Wolverines once again found themselves ranked among the top defenses in the nation. The defense, however, wasn’t getting much help from the offense.
But then a funny thing happened: Harbaugh was vindicated. After spotting Penn State a 21-0 lead in Happy Valley, the Wolverines fought back, and were a dropped touchdown pass away from forcing overtime against the Nittany Lions. From that point on, the Wolverines’ offense, to the surprise of many, began firing on all cylinders. In succession, Michigan hammered Notre Dame 45-14, scored a relatively easy 38-7 victory over Maryland, beat up in-state rival Michigan State 44-11, and dominated a very good Hoosier team 39-14. Suddenly, Michigan could seemingly do whatever it wanted on offense.
Harbaugh was proven right, but so were those who earlier predicted that changing its offense so completely, as Michigan was doing, would take time. That there would be growing pains associated with such an overhaul. Growing pains there were. But after slogging thought the first half of their season, the Wolverines are rolling through the second half.
Over the past half of the season, Patterson has been playing his best football as a Wolverine, leading an offense that is not only showing the ability to both run and pass, but also (and more importantly) the ability to correctly choose when to do each. In short, as the season hits the home stretch, Michigan is playing its best football of the season.
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, so is their final game opponent. In fact, Ohio State isn’t just playing its best football of the season, it’s playing at a historic level, outscoring opponents by nearly 40 points a game this season. The top-ranked Buckeyes are led by dual threat quarterback Justin Fields, who’s playing well enough in his first year as a starter that he’s on the short list of Heisman contenders. If Fields isn’t invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony, it will likely be because he was edged out by his own teammate. Junior defensive end Chase Young has proven to be nearly unblockable this season. Young has put together as dominant a season as any defensive player has in recent memory. Add one of the nation’s top running backs and a plethora NFL talent all over the rest of the field, and you see begin to see the challenge the Wolverines face in their season-ending clash with the Buckeyes.
In a way, this season’s finale presents a familiar picture for Harbaugh and the Wolverines: A promising season poised to be thwarted by their hated rival. Yes, the game is in Ann Arbor this year, but if Michigan couldn’t beat the Buckeyes in 2016 with a team that had 11 Wolverines drafted the following spring or last season when the Wolverines came into the game riding a ten-game winning streak and brought with them the nation’s best defense, you might ask, “What chance does Michigan have this year?” And you’d be within your rights for asking.
But that’s why they play the game, isn’t that what they say? And while it’s far from likely, this juggernaut of a Buckeye team presents Harbaugh and his Wolverines a chance to change the narrative surrounding coach and team. In this sense, Ohio State doesn’t present as much of a roadblock as it does an opportunity. An opportunity for Harbaugh and Michigan to end the season on a high note.
Las Vegas (and conventional wisdom) suggests the Wolverines don’t stand a chance against the loaded Buckeyes tomorrow. But you know what they say...