With every passing second, my hope grew exponentially.
Could they do it?
Could they avoid their characteristic second-half meltdown?
Could they secure the football?
I can't decide what is more shocking: the fact that they did not turn the ball over in the second half, the fact that Nick Sheridan started the game and actually played pretty darn well, or the fact that their pass game opened up for once this year.
There were a lot of surprises on Saturday, the most shocking being Michigan handily defeating the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Minneapolis.
The two programs were exact opposites of each other. Minnesota was 7-2 and playing, albeit with a distant chance, for a Big Ten championship. Michigan was 2-7, playing for the Little Brown Jug and nothing else.
Minnesota had everything to play for.
Michigan had very little to play for.
And with a packed house in Minneapolis, the Gophers GOT HANDLED.
End of story.
As is the traditional Michigan way, I will begin with what they could have done better.
First of all, while I am not going to knock eight trips to the red zone, I will say that five field goals and only one touchdown (that mattered) is not what they wanted. Against a more prolific offense, this would most likely not have been enough.
Second, while it only happened once, it still happened: They fumbled on a crucial possession inside the red zone. This has got to stop. They cannot expect to hold leads when they turn the ball over inside the opponent’s 20.
Oh my goodness. Did I actually run out of things to complain about? Holy smokes, I did. I’ll be darned—I actually have more things to be happy about than I do complaints.
Let’s start with the most annoying problem this year: They played relatively mistake-free. I haven't checked, but I do believe they did not give up a sack. Aside from Martavious Odoms' fumble, they didn’t turn the ball over. With Sheridan starting, that is absolutely shocking.
The run game was there for them, and not just for a quarter, but all game long. Heck, Justin Feagin came in and delivered some crucial runs, one of them for a long gain. Brandon Minor continued his very respectable performance, and Michael Shaw played the best game of his young college career.
The pass game was there. This was just as shocking as the fact that they didn’t turn the ball over five times. Greg Matthews looked like the receiver Michigan thought he would be, and Tony Clemons established himself as a viable receiving option. They converted their third downs, which was as significant as a stat as any this game.
The defense returned to form, having been absent for four weeks. The Wolverines allowed just two field goals to the home team while constantly pressuring and providing excellent coverage downfield. Both Brandons delivered big for the Wolverines, with Graham and Harrison each sacking the quarterback.
Saturday proved to be a beautiful day for the Michigan faithful. They weren't playing for a Big Ten championship. They weren't playing for a bowl game. What they played for was so much more important than either of the two could ever be.
The Wolverines were playing for pride.
And in the darkest of hours, when all hope seemed to be lost, when just about everyone had given up on them, they put an old-fashioned whupping on Minnesota.
This is what made me the proudest.
I recall a Lloyd Carr anecdote to supplant my point. Last season Carr spoke of a childhood memory of a playground fight in which he had been matched up against the big school bully.
“You’ve got two choices: You can stay down, or you can get up and keep fighting.”
Despite the program enduring the worst season in its history, one thing has not changed: They still want to win, and they want to win badly. It is this spirit that carries the program. They will come to play every Saturday, against all odds.
That is what I am most proud of.
Sure, they’ve gotten knocked down seven times this year, but they’ve gotten up after every one. It would be easy for players like Terrence Taylor and Brandon Graham, who have NFL careers to look forward to, to throw in the towel and stop trying.
But there is something special that they share with every player before them to wear the maize and blue: They keep fighting and never say die.
This writer has seen several Big Ten championship teams, as well as a national title, and I have never been prouder of my Wolverines.