ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The final weeks of the season have been a struggle for Michigan under Jim Harbaugh, but as this year winds down, the Wolverines appear to be playing their best football.
In the last three seasons, Michigan has finished 1-3, 0-3 and 0-2. Most notably, Harbaugh’s team has yet to beat Ohio State and hasn’t won a bowl game since his first year in 2015.
Most of those seasons started off promising. The 2016 team was once 9-0. The 2017 team was 8-2. Last year, Michigan won 10 straight games heading into Columbus.
Could this year be different? Michigan got off to perhaps its worst start of the Harbaugh era, nearly losing at home to Army and getting blown out by Wisconsin. Since then, Michigan has been one of the best teams in the country, winning six out of seven games.
Michigan’s resurgence can be broken down into two parts, the first of which was to stop the bleeding. Responding to what happened at Wisconsin was critical, and though it wasn’t always pretty over the next four games, Michigan found a way to go 3-1.
The win over Iowa was a defensive slug fest. Illinois provided a gut check as Michigan nearly blew a 28-point lead. Penn State tried to break Michigan’s spirit with a 21-0 start, but the Wolverines came one play away from tying the game. Each game tested Michigan in a different way.
The Rutgers, Iowa, Illinois and Penn State games weren’t overly inspiring, but Michigan did enough to get back on track and keep the season afloat.
Part two of the resurgence was when Michigan flipped a switch.
Michigan started by obliterating a good Notre Dame team, winning by 31 points and gaining more than 400 yards. The Fighting Irish are soon to be ranked in the top 15 of the College Football Playoff rankings, but they didn’t know what hit them in Ann Arbor.
The dominance continued on the road against Maryland. Michigan put up 38 more points and held the Terrapins to a single score. The final result was a second-straight 31-point victory.
While Michigan beat Notre Dame and Maryland with the running game and defense, it showcased a lethal passing attack to blow out Michigan State. Shea Patterson threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns. He found nine different targets in the passing game, including Ronnie Bell nine times for 150 yards.
Michigan State has lost five in a row, but this rivalry game has always been a battle. Michigan’s ability to run away from the Spartans proves the offense -- and the team as a whole -- has made major strides.
For once, is Michigan peaking at the end of the season, instead of October?
The defense is undeniably strong. It ranks in the top five nationally in terms of total yards, yards per play and passing yards per game. It’s top 20 in both rushing and scoring defense.
Since Cam McGrone took over as the starting middle linebacker, Michigan is allowing just 12.4 points per game, which would rank fifth in the nation for the full season.
Don Brown has his defense clicking. The difference -- as advertised in the off-season -- is the revamped offense.
After struggling for most of the first six and a half games, Michigan shifted gears midway through the Penn State game. Patterson has been more decisive and accurate. The wide receivers have gotten more separation. Ball security has been tighter.
Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins have the ability to carry the offense for an entire game, which they showed against Notre Dame and Illinois. Patterson and his receivers proved they can also move the ball with consistency, as they did against Penn State and Michigan State.
Josh Gattis brought a dramatically different offense into the fold this off-season, and perhaps it just needed more time to start bearing fruit. But now, this looks like the best offensive unit of the Harbaugh era.
Can Michigan maintain this high level of play on the road against a very good Indiana team? That question will help determine the answer to the more important follow-up question:
Has Michigan improved enough to beat Ohio State?
This might be the best Ohio State team since the national championship squad of 2014. Three weeks ago, nobody would have considered giving Michigan a chance. Now, it’s at least a conversation.
Michigan has flopped at the end of three straight seasons, but none of those teams had the steep upward trajectory of this one. Will it be enough to finally beat Ohio State? Let’s see what happens at Indiana first.