By the time Lavert Hill took a one-handed interception into the end zone, ending Wisconsin in every way that didn’t involve a clock hitting zero, every question you had about Michigan coming into a game of this magnitude had already been answered.
The run game? Karan Higdon churned through the Badgers in the second half like a hot knife through butter, and that on top of Shea Patterson’s electrifying 81-yard zone read keeper in the second quarter.
The defense? Alex Hornibrook went from late in the first quarter through garbage time — well after Hill’s pick-six — without completing a pass.
Shea Patterson? Besides some antsy moments in the pocket early, he was just fine.
Playing up to the moment, in a big game, under the lights? Not only did Michigan control the game from start to finish in a 38-13 win, but it did so while its opponent imploded, extending an early third-quarter drive that ended in a Patterson touchdown with defensive holding, roughing the snapper and a dropped interception.
The offensive line? It looks like a legitimate strength, and if it is, the Wolverines are a legitimate playoff contender.
“A lot of people had a lot of questions about who we are as a team,” Higdon said. “Our offensive line, our run game, we don’t show up in big games. I think we laid that to rest today. I think we came out and made some great adjustments and we got the job done.”
Then he took things a little bit further.
“There’s no further question that we’ve got the best offensive line in the country.”
In a press conference that went just over nine minutes, Higdon repeated that sentiment twice more.
Now, Michigan does not have the best offensive line in the country. It’s not particularly close to being the best offensive line in the country. But that Higdon can say it is without being laughed out of the room, well, given how things looked in the season-opening loss at Notre Dame, that’s pretty good.
Last year, Michigan was so bad at zone-blocking that it abandoned it almost completely, running power and counter with near-exclusivity in a way-too-close win at Indiana. On Saturday, the Wolverines gashed Wisconsin with zone reads.
“Coach (Ed) Warinner and the offensive staff put those runs in,” Patterson added. “We trusted in the gameplan all week, but it’s just when it actually happens and there’s nobody in front of you, it was exciting.”
This is a team that runs inside zone and Down G more than it runs power and counter — and it looks good doing it.
After Higdon struggled in the first half, Michigan decided to attack the C-gap. According to Jim Harbaugh, they took their six best plays from early on and just did those for the rest of the game. It’s hard to argue with the results.
As for the pass protection, the pocket was mostly clean on Saturday. The line has given Patterson time to throw in every game saving Notre Dame — the bigger problem has been Patterson breaking the pocket too early. And even that comes with the caveat that he’s largely been impressive outside the pocket.
We’ve heard about Warinner simplifying things, and we’ve heard players talk about the line with confidence as a result. But now, we’ve seen it on the field enough to believe it.
“We’ve been in those big games,” Ben Bredeson said. “I personally have seen us not be able to finish them. That was a big focus for us this offseason, was changing the culture in the offensive line room, that we were gonna finish games. And when we needed a first down to win or a touchdown to win it, we were gonna be able to deliver.”
Michigan delivered Saturday, in a big way, on a big stage.
One-third of the way through the toughest part of its schedule, suddenly, it’s pretty easy to see a one-loss Michigan rolling into Columbus. The Wolverines are better than Michigan State on paper — simple as that. Penn State just lost to the Spartans at home and on top of that, Michigan looks to be hitting its stride.
“We knew coming into this game that everything was ahead of us and that we control our own destiny,” Patterson said. “... I think it was a statement game. We came out and kinda gave it to ‘em a little bit. We didn’t just win, we kinda dominated them.”