November 19, 2011
Michigan 45, Nebraska 17.
For most of this season, Michigan fans didn't know what kind of team they had, and certain moments where they may have been afraid to find out. Yes, this team rode an undefeated season into October, but so did Rich Rodriguez's last two teams in 2009 and 2010, and look where they ended up. Yes, this team rallied to stun Notre Dame in dramatic fashion, but so did Rodriguez's teams. Yes, this team secured a winning season against middling competition, but so did Rodriguez's final team.
Other similarities were more glaring. This team also blew its undefeated record in a lopsided loss at Michigan State, and showed no signs of progress at Iowa, a loss that effectively eliminated them from the Big Ten title hunt. Three-fourths of the way through the season, these Wolverines hadn't accomplished anything their predecessors had not, or to vanquish the anxiety over another November collapse.
Today, they can consider those fears officially vanquished. By any measure, a decisive rout over a ranked Big Ten contender is Michigan's best win since Lloyd Carr rode his players' shoulders into the sunset in the 2008 Capital One Bowl. When the infamously docile home crowd began chanting "BEAT OHIO!" in the final minutes, it was the equivalent of exorcising a three-and-a-half-year fog.
And it was, if not exactly the kind of vintage "This is Michigan" mashing Brady Hoke invoked throughout the offseason, at least as close as this particular team has come to its own platonic ideal. Denard Robinson took every significant snap at quarterback, carried 23 times, looked sharp as a passer and accounted for four touchdowns. Tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint went over 100 yards on the ground for the third time in the last four games, adding a pair of scores of his own. The offense as a whole held the ball for almost 42 minutes. The defense held Nebraska to a season-low in total yards and matched a season low in points. The 'Huskers didn't convert a third down until the end of the third quarter.
In a matchup of apparent equals, the only aspect of the game Nebraska "won" — or came close to winning — was average yards per punt. And that doesn't include the punt Michigan blocked.
For the first time in years, then, the Wolverines win a game without a single caveat. They didn't overpower a hapless bottom dweller. They didn't launch an improbable rally in the fourth quarter. They didn't overcome a sketchy defensive effort in a shootout. They didn't just survive for another week. For the first time in a very long time, they thoroughly outplayed a legitimate Big Ten and BCS contender from start to finish. Next week, for the first time in a long time — 2004 to be precise, the year after last win over Ohio State — they're going to be favored to beat the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor.
For once, the success or failure of the season doesn't hinge entirely on the finale: At 9-2, the Wolverines have clearly exceeded preseason expectations. Hoke's first team has significantly improved over the course of the season and defied the grasp of Rodriguez-era stagnation. A January bowl game awaits. In the long lens of getting the program back to where it wants to be, the season is a success. Now, it's one slain dragon away from being all the way back.