Things looked pretty helpless for the maize-and-blue when Northwestern got off to a 17-0 start, but Michigan scored the game's final 20 points for its second biggest road comeback in school history (at Minnesota in 2003 is tops). So regardless of how disappointing the start of the game was, credit is owed for the way the Wolverines roared back when it looked for awhile like a soul-crushing loss was looming.
Then there's Michigan's defensive front seven and kicking game, which were the most dominant units on the field. Northwestern was expected to struggle running the ball without Jeremy Larkin, who was forced to medically retire this week. However, the Wildcats finished with just 28 yards on the ground, thanks mostly to the six sacks Michigan had.
But without a flawless effort from the kicking duo of Quinn Nordin (perfect on all field goals and PATs) and Will Hart (51-yard punting average), it's highly unlikely the Wolverines escape Evanston with the win.
Why are you holding on to win on the final play when you've out-gained your opponent, 346-97, in the final three quarters? Because college football is a four quarter sport. Yet once again, just like the season opener at Notre Dame, the Wolverines didn't decide to join the fray until about 45 minutes of real time after the opening kick off. The first quarter was a total loss for Michigan. A. Total. Loss.
Then there were the penalties, which have been a problem for Michigan going back to last season. Michigan was minus-75 in penalty yards, and although it didn't commit any turnovers, a deficit like that when it comes to self-harm essentially amounts to a couple of turnovers. In other words, Michigan beat two teams on Saturday -- Northwestern and it's own mistakes.
Do that in those upcoming road games at Michigan State and Ohio State, and we'll have another grueling offseason of Harbaugh hater narrative to endure.
The Bottom Line
Michigan can become as good as it's willing to let itself be.
When you out-rush an opponent by 160 yards and allow only 27% third down conversions, you should win going away. But because the Wolverines kept self-inflicting wounds, they had to overcome a 17-point deficit instead. Credit to Pat Fitzgerald for having his team ready coming off a bye, and playing hard with its back against the wall trying to avoid a third straight home loss. But there was a talent chasm between these two teams the Wolverines worked hard to close by hurting themselves. And if you think that's a harsh self-assessment of my favorite team, or I'm blowing Michigan's personnel advantage out of proportion, consider this:
Northwestern only had a paltry 202 total yards, yet had the ball with a chance to win or tie on the final possession.
The Wolverines are undoubtedly a talented team. What remains to be seen is if they are a good team.