ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Heading into Michigan's top-15 matchup against Wisconsin, the naysayers had plenty of ammunition against the surging but unproven Wolverines.
Jim Harbaugh's team had won five straight games, but without any quality victories, the college football world wanted to see more.
On Saturday, Michigan showed more. A lot more.
After a first half of feeling each other out -- and Michigan missed a pair of field goals that would have made it a 12-point lead -- the Wolverines exploded in the second half and dominated Wisconsin in a way it isn't used to being dominated.
The Badgers haven't lost a game by more than a touchdown since Sept. 5, 2015. That came against an Alabama team that went on to win the national championship. The year prior, Ohio State crushed Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game en route to a national title of its own.
Other than those two games, Wisconsin has lost only twice by double digits since 2010 -- a 34-24 loss each to Michigan State in 2010 and South Carolina in 2013. That's nearly a decade of football with only two losses of more than 10 points.
Impact of Wisconsin win
This isn't one of the most dominant Wisconsin teams in the Paul Chryst era. Alex Hornibrook has his flaws at quarterback, and the Badgers aren't elite in the trenches. Wisconsin is a very good team, but nowhere near the No. 4 ranking it received in the preseason poll.
But the opponent was strong enough to be a measuring stick for a Michigan team that was still a mystery after losing to Notre Dame and ripping off five straight wins -- four of them with relative ease.
If Michigan had lost to Wisconsin, it would have been written off as another Harbaugh team that pounds on weak teams and can't hang with the Big Ten's best. Instead, this win shows that the improvements made over the last month were legitimate, and not a product of the competition.
The AP Poll voters agreed, as Michigan rose to No. 6 in this week's rankings. The Wolverines moved up conservatively after each of their first five wins, but it was as if all their successes cashed in at once when the final seconds ticked away Saturday night.
Of the 61 voters, 13 tabbed Michigan as the No. 5 team in the nation. Another 17 put them at No. 6. Here's a full breakdown of the individual voters from this week:
- No. 5: 13 voters
- No. 6: 17 voters
- No. 7: 8 voters
- No. 8: 4 voters
- No. 9: 9 voters
- No. 10: 6 voters
- No. 11: 4 voters
This isn't a vintage Wisconsin team, but it's still very good, and this win vaulted Michigan back into serious Big Ten contention.
It wasn't a shock to see Michigan win as a heavy home favorite. It was the way it happened that turned heads.
Michigan rocked Wisconsin by 25 points, and it didn't even feel that close.
If not for a 75-yard touchdown drive in the final five minutes, Wisconsin would have finished with about 200 total yards and only one score. The Wolverines had already gone to the backups, who were also running around on the Badgers.
In the end, Michigan held Wisconsin to 283 yards, winning the yardage battle by 161. Harbaugh didn't need to unleash Shea Patterson against a poor Wisconsin secondary, opting instead to run the ball 48 times for 320 yards and 6.7 yards per carry.
In essence, Michigan Wisconsin'd Wisconsin.
The Badgers went 2-11 on third down, turned it over twice and completed just seven passes -- four of which came on the garbage time touchdown drive.
Michigan's defense nearly outscored Wisconsin by itself, as Lavert Hill returned a pick-six and Josh Metellus returned an interception to the red zone, where the Wolverines kicked a field goal.
It's rare that a football team outplays such a strong opponent in every facet of the game, but that's what happened. Michigan had fewer turnovers, fewer penalties and 37 minutes of possession time.
Wisconsin could very well finish the season with nine or 10 wins and go to the Big Ten title game. That's why Michigan's statement victory was so impressive.
Harbaugh's best wins
There are a handful of candidates for the best win of the Harbaugh era. Keep in mind, this win will also be defined by how Michigan finishes the season.
Michigan's most dominant win in Harbaugh's first season came against No. 13 Northwestern, which entered the game 5-0 and left Ann Arbor with a 38-0 loss. Michigan held the Wildcats to 168 yards of offense in what became a third-straight shutout.
In 2016, Michigan dismantled Penn State, 49-10. The Nittany Lions weren't ranked at the time, but they went on to win their next nine games and take home a Big Ten title.
Those were the two most dominant performances for Michigan against good teams in the Harbaugh era, but the one against Wisconsin might supplant both.
Penn State was 2-2 after the loss to Michigan and didn't really hit its stride until a crazy win over Ohio State late in October. Northwestern won 10 games in 2015, but all three of its losses came by at least 30 points.
Wisconsin returned most of a team that went undefeated last regular season and nearly beat Ohio State to get into the College Football Playoff. The combination of talent that returned from last year's Badgers and the history of avoiding blowouts is what makes Saturday's win the best of the Harbaugh era.
With a road game against Michigan State up next, a revenge game against Penn State in November and the impending matchup against Ohio State, Harbaugh will have multiple chances to top it.
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