|That's one small step for a man, one giant leap... (Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)|
"You say that I've changed
Well maybe I did
But even if I changed
What's wrong with it."
--"Never Let You Go" by Third Eye Blind from their 1999 album Blue
I was at the grocery store this morning in my small town south of Ann Arbor, wearing my Michigan hat that I recently reclaimed from an unfortunate smoothie spill during summer 2018 (the initial wash didn't work, hammering it with the Shout gel with the brush end did the trick. Honestly, good as new.) A woman in her mid-50s relatively non-descript, walked by me in the aisle, saw my hat and said "Go Blue. They kicked Notre Dame's ass last night." To which I could only reply in my best Phineas Flynn voice "Yes, yes they did."
One of my mentally recurring themes of this season comes from the first line of my first column of the season: "Harbingers don't actually exist, except in retrospect." A fanbase as astute as the vast majority of Michigan's (you know the ones that started chanting "Ronnie, Ronnie" when Ronnie Bell made his first catch of the game) is going to know the contours of how football games work. To wit: Michigan settling for three inside the five so will cost them later on, Michigan's drops will cost them, John O'Neill's crew is going to steal this game from Michigan, that replay review on Nico Collins's catch right after the first Notre Dame* touchdown is going to haunt us. These are fair, reasonable, and informed systems of belief. These are the reflections of an astute and well-informed fanbase that has been beaten down, time and time again.
And none of it mattered. The breaks didn't all break Michigan's way, but enough of them did because all too often, Michigan was making its own luck. Michigan's game plan respected the weather and trusted its veteran offensive line to get things moving and get things done. The still relatively untested duo of Charbonnet and Haskins shined, following blocks, breaking through holes, and second efforting to extra yards ("fall forward!"). Michigan was only up 17-0 at the half, but it felt like it was simultaneously dominant and not enough, because just last week, a ranked team on the road stormed back after some halftime adjustments.
Smart football people will remind you that the three hours of football you see on Saturday/Sunday are just a sliver of the actual work that goes into football during any given week. Film study, practice, game planning, all of these are much more meaningful and much more telling of what a team is than the game, but the result of the game is all that matters to everyone on the outside. So Coach Harbaugh's record as an underdog, against Top 10 teams, how Michigan looked against Wisconsin and Penn State this season, all of those things loomed over Michigan Stadium like the nigh impenetrable cloud cover that blanketed southeast Michigan yesterday evening. The rains fell, steadily, then harder, then not at all. Would the break in the weather pay off for Notre Dame's commitment to its core offensive philosophy? It would not.
The Michigan defense of 2019 is not that of 2018. This has some negatives, but it also has some evolutions. According to Bill Connolly's SP+, Michigan currently has the #2 defense in the nation behind only...Ohio State. Crap. But Notre Dame's game plan on offense appeared to be predicated on Ohio State's from 2018, which is not unreasonable, except for the fact that Michigan is no longer solely a man team. They may get burned by crossing routes on occasion, everyone does, but mostly Michigan's defense is back to its relentless, pursuing self. It shook Book to his cleats, making him hear sloshing footsteps, never letting him off the hook, as he stood in the pocket, only to flee many an open look. This was classic "solve your problems with aggression" and while it was not perfect, it was what Michigan fans have come to expect from their defense in the Brown era.
Though it did not end up costing Michigan in this game, the Big Ten must look at the performance of the John O'Neill crew and ask how they keep getting away with this. The ABC crew was incredulous at the interception erasing PI flag on Hudson and rightfully so. When the towels rained down from the student section, it was the logical extension of a crowd that was continuing to boo an officiating decision that was utterly baffling. I still hope Michigan is sending a strongly worded email to Chicago and asking the Big Ten to explain themselves.
There were so many electric moments in the game that if you surveyed 25 random Michigan fans, it's possible to conceive of getting 25 different answers, largely based on what they value. Perhaps the Haskins hurdle is your flavor, maybe the relentless Spanellis pancake into the nether regions of the Notre Dame sideline made you smile, maybe Shea getting the ball out a split second before getting crushed and finding DPJ in the end zone on a crucial "stanch the bleeding" moment that allowed the rout to commence in earnest. Maybe it was Shea out lead blocking on the Tru Wilson touchdown that showed this team was not done. There are many others. Whatever it is, this game serves as a reminder to fans of three critical things: 1). While you may be disappointed that Michigan's major goals are now out of reach, this team is still playing hard for itself if no one else. That matters. 2). College football should not simply be about the playoff. There's too much weird, too much absurdity, too much fun to enjoy even if the goal of being "the best" is out of reach. 3). Winning does beat losing. Even if the Harbaugh narrative goalposts move again (and they will), this at least quiets those voices for a time.
Harbingers aren't harbingers until they are, after all.