Michigan’s emphatic win over Notre Dame was big, but is it enough?

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Some might say Michigan delivered a statement win over Notre Dame on Saturday. Others might say the victory is only a temporary reprieve from the real test that awaits in late November.

Both points can be true at once. Everything about the way Michigan dominated the Fighting Irish in a 45-14 victory showed just how badly the Wolverines not only needed to win, but how badly they needed an emphatic win to tamp down the continuing narrative that Jim Harbaugh cannot win big games (and might leave as a result).

Late November can wait. In the here and now, Michigan seems like a team that is finally starting to find its way after a colossal meltdown at Wisconsin and a heartbreaking loss to Penn State that could end up saving the season.

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While those outside the Michigan football complex spent the past week debating yet again whether Harbaugh would stick around to finish the job he set out five years ago to do, Harbaugh and those inside pressed on diligently, even though their Big Ten championship hopes had all but vanished.

It would have been easier to quit, but Michigan showed a spark in the second half against the Nittany Lions that it carried into the Notre Dame game. In a driving rainstorm, a team that had made a habit of fumbling suddenly stopped fumbling.

An offensive line that struggled for consistency suddenly opened gaping holes and moved defenders at will, including an epic effort late in the game from backup Stephen Spanellis, who blocked his defender well past the sideline in a moment that went viral on social media. A defense that gave up too many big plays locked down everyone, holding Ian Book to a career-low 73 yards passing and limiting the run game to 47 yards on 31 carries.

“I saw it coming,” Harbaugh said. “Just watching them prepare, watching them practice, watching the detail in the meetings, just how important it was to them. Day in, day out, work in practice — the growth, you could see it.”

If the players felt the need to win for Harbaugh, or to prove anything about the state of the program, they were not saying. Quarterback Shea Patterson, who has taken more criticism than any player on the Wolverines’ roster, turned and looked at teammates Hassan Haskins and Josh Metellus when asked if the victory said anything about Michigan given the tumult over the previous seven days.

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They seemed to be speaking to each other without actually saying any words.

“Not really,” Patterson said eventually. “I thought we just needed to come out from start to finish and just play the way we know how to play. Really, that was the first time on all cylinders we played our best game, and when we do that, we’re really tough to beat.”

This was indeed the best performance of the season. The issues at Michigan began long before the Wisconsin and Penn State games. In the opener against Middle Tennessee, the offense appeared disjointed, and Patterson found himself with a seat on the bench in the second half.

The Wolverines followed up that performance with three fumbles and a near loss to Army, and put up just 267 yards of offense and 13 first downs in a victory over Iowa. Then they had to survive Illinois after nearly blowing a big lead. For a team that started out in the preseason top 10 with Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff hopes, the first seven games did not offer much in the way of proof that anything had actually changed.

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