The Michigan football team entered this season ranked 7th nationwide, and were picked to win the Big Ten title. With a lot of good players and coaches coming back from a 10-win team the year before, it made sense.
But on the season’s first play, senior quarterback Shea Patterson injured his oblique muscles, and took weeks to fully recover. The offense, and the team’s new offensive coordinator, Josh Gattis, struggled along with him.
The Wolverines needed double-overtime to put away Army, before getting blown up by 13th ranked Wisconsin. How bad was it? The Badgers scored 35 points before the Wolverines scored any – one of the worst Michigan games in years.
After the Wolverines bounced back with three wins, including an impressive defensive effort against 14th ranked Iowa, it set up a duel with 7th ranked Penn State.
The Wolverines were 9-point underdogs, which reflected their falling stock. Even that seemed optimistic when the Wolverines fell behind 21-0 just halfway into the second quarter.
But then, in a matter of minutes, the dormant Wolverines woke up from their season-long slumber. Michigan’s defense smothered Penn State, while Michigan’s offense finally figured out what it had been trying to do all year, and scored three touchdowns.
In the game’s final minutes, with Michigan down by just one touchdown, the Wolverines had the momentum and the ball on Penn State’s three-yard line. When Patterson’s first receiver was covered, he quickly threw to his secondary receiver, Ronnie Bell, who was wide open in the endzone.
Patterson’s pass was perfect – but the ball went right through Bell’s hands. He collapsed to the ground in despair. The TV cameras later showed Bell on the sidelines, in tears – prompting more than a few fans, who had apparently been raised by wolves, to send him nasty messages on Twitter. Fortunately, a large contingent of sane humans responded by defending Bell, and attacking his critics.
The bad news for Michigan fans was obvious: in a big game, Michigan had once again fallen far behind. But unlike against Wisconsin, this time the Wolverines fought back, and dominated the second half. In fact, they finished with a third more yards of offense, and almost twice as many first downs — easily their best half of the season.
It is rare for Michigan fans to feel better about their team after a loss, but that seems to be the case this week.
None of that changes the bottom line: the Wolverines lost their second game, all but knocking them out of the Big Ten chase just halfway into the race.
Michigan has five regular season games left, two against top ten teams, plus rival Michigan State. The Wolverines could easily lose three more to finish with a desultory 7-5 mark.
Or, if they build on their success in the second half, the Wolverines could rally to beat 8th-ranked Notre Dame this weekend, and rattle off three more wins to enter the big game against Ohio State at 9-2.
But which Michigan team shows up is anyone’s guess.
John U. Bacon is the author of six national bestsellers and most recently published Overtime: Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines at the Crossroads of College Football.