Hassan Haskins, Shea Patterson and Josh Methel of Michigan discuss a 45-14 hole win over Notre Dame, October 26, 2019.
Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
It's easy to look back and wonder. From where you are sitting, anyway. Where I sit from.
What if Michigan football didn't collide with Wisconsin's 4-yard line during its first drive of the game in September? What if the Wolverines tie the game instead?
Do they keep their heads high? Do you keep your shoulders from sagging? Are they digging into the dams the way they dug at Notre Dame on a Saturday night?
What if U-M doesn't start slow against Penn State? Or does she make another play at the end of the game and send it out in an extra hour?
Are we having a different conversation? Are we thinking about how U-M is likely to conquer Michigan State in a few weeks and may be ready to take on Ohio State in the fourth quarter a few weeks after that?
It's hard not to think about these questions after watching the throttle of Wolverines Notre Dame, 45-14, Saturday night at a stadium in Michigan. It's hard not to wonder what might have been.
Unfortunately for U-M, that's how college football works. It is unforgivable and inexorable, with little time to build and less time to adapt.
And even less time to draw identity, though I think U-M found one.
What is this?
Let's explain the offensive liner Michael Aries. He's a five-man bulldozer who pushes the Irish to fight almost all the way back to South Bend.
"We can attack you as much as we want," he said when asked to describe the identity he and his teammates forge.
It took a while to get here. Although his coach Jim Harbow has promised it has been around for a while. Hell, he told a reporter on the Beaver Stadium page during halftime that his Werewolves were coming.
They did it. And he almost knocked out Pen State after falling behind three sensors.
This team found something for themselves in this game at the end of the second quarter. I learned that his collective strength in the trenches – on both sides – is enormous.
How's this about identity?
In the NFL, if a team wins like these Wolverines just did, a week after the second half road blitz almost resulted in a staggering profit from the back, you would buy shares in what the coaches and players were selling.
You will begin to think about the postseason and the possibilities of where the emerging group may end up. The NFL has time to build. More importantly, there is a time for mistakes, for learning lessons, for passing tests.
They are also possible in college play. It's just easier to forget, because single-slip often means the end of dreams after the season. Surely a few feeds will end all the playoff hopes.
The Werewolves sit here.
So where do they go?
Well, the two-loss season will soothe a lot of chatter about this program. This is still possible. This would be useful for Harbaugh.
And useful for his players.
They need more nights like Saturday. To get the feeling that the defense is shaking and the offense is rolling and the fans at 100,000 plus in the stadium are roaring.
It's been a while since Harbau's Wolves came out against the top 10 teams and drowned them out. No, demoralize them.
It was easy to see on Saturday night under the lights, when the rain finally lifted and Notre Dame's shoulders began to sag. And when senior running back Tru Wilson picked up a pass, cut to the left and grabbed 27 yards for a touchdown, it was all over except for the dance.
Not that Michigan fans dance much. But for the first time in a few years no one will blame them.
Now, maybe No. 7 in the fight against the Irish is not so good. They arrived in Ann Arbor with a 5-1 record, a loss to Georgia and a narrow victory over the average Southern Cal.
Still, they were a top 10 team. Playoff team a year ago. A list built on the best recruitment classes and several future professionals.
So … U-M took the field against a team of equal or almost equal talent and scored it. The defense played a lot like Penn State's second half, forcing three and out again.
The werewolves forced nine points – nine . The 47-yard detained Irishman rushed and 133 passes, nearly 300 yards below his average.
Yes, it's fair to wonder about Notre Dame's schedule. It is no longer fair to wonder at the mental strength of U-M.
A week ago Michigan showed that Harbaugh was right that his team was approaching.
It also shows how far Wisconsin had come when this early blow came to draped heads and a crooked side plan. The werewolves still didn't know how to compete in Madison that day. Neither were quite sure who they were.
Although they had a sense of what was inside them.
"I believe we always have," says sophomore Cameron McGrown. It just took until "the second half against Penn State (to find) what we can do." in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Saturday, October 26, 2019. Michigan won 45-14. (AP Photo / Tony Ding) (Photo: The Associated Press)
You can argue that the team found it too late. And it could be if all that matters is a Big Ten title.
Sometimes, however, progress in one season may carry over into the next. Changes that are difficult in one September can be muscle memory until the next.
Harbaugh is a type of finder. This is a useful quality on the bus. But it's not always easy for players to adapt to what the coach ultimately sees.
For the better part of this season, his team fell into visions. Several players admitted so much after the loss to Wisconsin that they were not sure how to separate from one another.
This hesitation led to slow and uncertain beginnings. He bitten U-M at Penn State.
But on this return, the Werewolves discovered who they should be. Notre Dame was shown to us.
They covered the rain and shed critical noise and blew the Irish to fight at the point of attack from the first game of the game.
U-M ran for 303 yards, led by Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet. They ran through holes as wide as Lake Superior, and when they met defenders in the second, they rushed over them.
Or jump over them.
Or firmly armed, as Haskins did a 49-yard run in the third quarter after Notre Dame reduced the lead to 10. His mid-burst created a pass for Shea Patterson to pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones, and whatever hope he had. The Fight with the Irish has disappeared.
For the first time all season, and perhaps for the first time in several years, the Werewolves took to the field against a respectable foe and played with those forces that Harbaugh's best teams used.
Yes, maybe a week is too late.
Still, progress is still worth it, isn't it? Because Harbaugh's program finally showed some.
"That's why I have so much respect for our players," he said. "They've had some tests that have been criticized, but the mindset of them continuing to work and grow … (this is) a great lesson for them. Because not everyone can do this. "
No, they can't.
And it's also worth something.
Contact Sean Windsor: 313-222-6487 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.