ANN ARBOR — Before Saturday night, I would have sooner bought a seaside condo in Napoleon from a Nigerian prince before trusting Jim Harbaugh to win a big football game.
I still might.
We’ve been burned too many times to declare Michigan back.
But the Wolverines’ 38-13 beatdown of Wisconsin was some kind of statement just the same.
In a top-15 showdown that promised to herald either the beginning of the end or the first night of the rest of a big-dreaming season, Michigan dusted off its playoff resume with by far the most impressive victory of the Harbaugh era.
And, yes, we said playoffs.
With a name-taking show of force on both sides of the ball, Michigan is back ... in the national picture. Don’t everyone look at once, but, after Michigan State stunned Penn State earlier in the day, the Big Ten’s playoff hopes rest entirely with third-ranked Ohio State (7-0) and No. 12 Michigan (6-1).
Whether Michigan will have its say remains to be seen.
VIDEO: Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh
The Wolverines must show their work next week at Michigan State, then at home against Penn State, both of which are major tests. It will take more than one victory for Harbaugh to shed the big-game record he wears like a scarlet letter bigger than the Block M at midfield.
Harbaugh improved to 3-8 against top-15 opponents since returning to Ann Arbor in 2015 and, of course, is 1-5 against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State.
But let us not put anything past these Wolverines.
“We are not done yet,” said running back Karan Higdon, who turned in his fifth straight 100-yard rushing effort. “From here on out, it’s personal.”
It sure seemed like it Saturday.
Don’t tell me Wisconsin is a beaten-up fraud, all the while ignoring the Badgers had won a record 17 straight regular-season Big Ten games.
This was a pillar-to-post pasting as cathartic as it comes for a program, a coach, and a longing fan base that quaked the stadium. This was quarterback Shea Patterson making big plays. An embattled offensive line clearing heaven, earth, and the path for 320 rushing yards. A national-best defense that held Wisconsin to 192 yards through three quarters.
For one night, Michigan looked every bit one of the top teams in the nation.
Sure, it took a little while to show it.
After spending a scoreless first quarter scratching themselves and grunting — one of these days, Michigan and Wisconsin ought to end the pretense and just settle things with a refrigerator lift competition — these sledgehammers began running not just into but around each other.
Well, one of them, at least.
Michigan took control in a second quarter that was equal parts exhilarating and exasperating for the home crowd.
The exhilarating: Patterson taking an option keeper 81 yards down one sideline, then Josh Metellus returning an interception 31 yards down the other one, Michigan knocking hard on the door at every turn.
The exasperating: The Wolverines led by only six at half.
So many opportunities, so much left on the field. Michigan had 13 points to show for five first-half trips inside the Wisconsin 35, twice settling for field goals and missing two others. Wisconsin, meanwhile, trespassed inside the Michigan 35 once and had seven points.
If Michigan has designs on winning in East Lansing or Columbus, that can’t happen.
But none of that mattered on this night.
Michigan was too good. The hosts force-fed an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive down the Badgers’ gullet to open the second half, and left nothing to chance from there.
Most impressive was the way Michigan bullied Wisconsin, asserting its will as the night went on. If you had told me the Wolverines would rush for 237 yards in the second half against a physical but demoralized Badgers front — then hear Higdon call Michigan’s line the best in the country — I would have choked on my press-box bratwurst.
Then again, maybe it’s time to readjust our expectations for Michigan.
Harbaugh and the Wolverines are not back yet, but the road there has to start somewhere.
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