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How Michigan football has gotten season back on track after flirting with disaster

Wolverines 5-1 in last six games

Michigan running back Hassan Haskins (25) celebrates his touchdown run against Maryland with wide receivers Tarik Black (7) and Mike Sainristil (19) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in College Park, Md. Michigan won 38-7. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Six weeks ago, the college football universe was ready to bury Michigan after an embarrassing loss to Wisconsin, but after winning five of its last six games in impressive fashion, the Wolverines have gotten this season back on track.

There’s no denying the first three weeks of Michigan’s season were ugly. It began with a somewhat underwhelming opener against Middle Tennessee and got even worse during a near-loss to Army -- a team that’s 2-5 since taking the Wolverines to double overtime in the Big House.

So when Michigan fell behind 35-0 to the Badgers in Madison, the national skepticism exploded into full-blown declaration of Jim Harbaugh’s demise. Michigan was supposed to be one of the best teams in the Big Ten, but instead, it was off to another slow start.

At the time of Michigan’s loss to Wisconsin, here’s how the rest of the schedule looked:

  • vs. Rutgers
  • vs. No. 10 Iowa
  • at Illinois
  • at No. 13 Penn State
  • vs. No. 7 Notre Dame
  • at No. 21 Maryland
  • vs. No. 18 Michigan State
  • at Indiana
  • vs. No. 6 Ohio State

Michigan was playing terrible football, already had a loss on its resume and faced six more games against ranked opponents. There was speculation that Michigan could lose as many as five or six games, and in fairness, it was justified. That Michigan team was in complete disarray offensively and couldn’t compete with Wisconsin on defense.

Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers rushes for a touchdown during the first half against the Michigan Wolverines at Camp Randall Stadium on September 21, 2019 in Madison, Wisconsin.

It felt like the Harbaugh era was at a turning point. Fortunately for the Wolverines, it turned in the right direction.

Michigan’s defense stepped up and saved the season against Iowa, holding a future NFL quarterback to just three points and sacking him eight times. The Hawkeyes mustered just one rushing yard on 30 attempts and committed four turnovers. It was a Don Brown masterpiece and kept Michigan from falling into a deeper hole.

Then, Michigan’s offense finally started to click.

It began against Illinois, when Hassan Haskins emerged out of nowhere and began his ascent from fourth-string running back to a co-starter with Zach Charbonnet. Haskins carried the ball 12 times for 125 yards against the Fighting Illini, including a 29-yard touchdown run in which he showcased tackle-breaking strength and breakaway speed.

Together, Haskins and Charbonnet gained 241 yards on 30 carries. They opened up the passing game and allowed Shea Patterson to throw for 194 yards and three touchdowns.

The Penn State game was even more encouraging for the offense. Michigan outgained Penn State 417-283 and should have tied the game late in the fourth quarter, if not for a dropped touchdown pass. Patterson continued to improve, throwing for 276 yards despite six dropped passes by his receivers and running backs.

Even though it came in a loss, Michigan appeared to be forming an identity on offense. Meanwhile, the defense rounded into form.

It all came together against Notre Dame.

Zach Charbonnet #24 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates a first half touchdown with teammates while playing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Michigan Stadium on October 26, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Harbaugh got one of the biggest wins of his Michigan tenure, trouncing Notre Dame 45-14. The Wolverines finished with a 437-180 advantage in yardage and rushed for more than 5 yards per carry.

They took that same dominance on the road this weekend, crushing a wounded Maryland team 38-7 on homecoming.

On Sept. 21, the next six games appeared to include four potential losses for Michigan. But the Wolverines found a way to go 5-1 and keep the season afloat.

With two losses in the conference, it’s obviously too late for Michigan to accomplish its goals of winning a Big Ten title or playing in the playoff. But 2019 is far from the disaster it could have been.

Michigan has been strong on defense and explosive on special teams. It’s trending in the right direction on offense. Tough games against Michigan State and at Indiana await after the bye week, but if Michigan continues on this upward trajectory, it should continue to rack up victories.

All it can hope for is to go into the Ohio State game at 9-2 and see what happens. That doesn’t sound so bad compared to five or six losses.

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