Wojo: Wolverines pummel Notre Dame with a ferocity we had to see

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Maybe it was the rain, or the revenge, or the outside rants about unfulfilled expectations. But Michigan did something Saturday night it hadn’t done in a while, and kept doing it until Notre Dame could take no more.

The Wolverines played with anger, force and focus, thoroughly dismantling the No. 8 Fighting Irish 45-14 on a soggy night in Michigan Stadium. This was the last time these football teams will meet for 14 years, and it might take that long for Notre Dame’s bruises to heal.

Michigan wide receiver Mike Sainristil (19) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

It was so punishing in its completeness, from the running game to the fierce defense, you’re free to wonder where it came from. One distinct possibility: It sprouted from the comeback last week against Penn State that fell just short. Jim Harbaugh had declared at halftime in Happy Valley that Michigan was about to have its “finest hour,” and this certainly was its finest three-and-a-half hours.

You’re also free to wonder if this is what Michigan (6-2) will be in its final four games, with two more rivals on the docket and a trip to Maryland next Saturday. It’s what we’d been waiting to see and it was on full display, even more impressive because of the relentless rain. With both passing games dampened, the focus went to the trenches, and even though the Irish knew the run was coming, they couldn’t stop it. On back-to-back touchdown drives that made it 17-0 in the second quarter, Michigan ran on 14 of 15 snaps, with Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet taking turns.

Shea Patterson completed only six passes all game but the Wolverines rolled up 303 yards rushing, 149 by Haskins. It was old-school brutality, start to finish, for the first time all season.

“Four great quarters out of all sides of the ball,” Harbaugh said. “Yeah, I saw it coming. Just watching them prepare, practice, watching the detail in the meetings, how important it was to them. I have so much respect for the players. You could see the growth.”

Providing proof

He could see it but the evidence had to be on public display, and here it was. From the lopsided loss to Wisconsin to the sloppy first half against Penn State — even going back to the double-overtime victory against Army — reasonable doubt was planted. And nothing gets fully erased until the Wolverines beat You-Know-Who and make it to the Big Ten title game. The way Ohio State is playing, that remains a long shot this season.

But don’t let that dilute the significance of this performance. At least for the moment, the Wolverines won’t have to endure endless recitations of their big-game record. They snapped an eight-game losing streak against top-10 opponents — now 2-10 in such games under Harbaugh — and also won as an underdog, according to some Vegas lines. The odds showed the skepticism about the Wolverines, that they’d be a one-point underdog at home against a Notre Dame team that didn’t resemble a juggernaut.

The Irish (5-2) had made a big impression in a tough 23-17 loss at Georgia and were considered a typically dangerous offensive team under Brian Kelly. But oh my, this was decimation almost immediately, as Michigan beat Notre Dame for the fifth straight time at home and avenged last year’s 24-17 loss in South Bend.

This also was a reprisal of Don Brown’s touted defense, which had its reputation rattled several times lately. It came out as aggressive as ever, but with much more discipline. On the wet field, the Wolverines defenders almost never got out of place, and when Notre Dame finally pulled quarterback Ian Book in the fourth quarter, the Irish had precisely 100 total yards, and Book was 8-for-25.

Running back Tony Jones Jr. rumbled for 176 yards last week against USC but went nowhere here, finishing with 14. Notre Dame had only 47 yards rushing and 180 overall (compared to 437 for Michigan).

“We knew once we hit the quarterback a couple times, he’d get jumpy in the pocket and not want to throw down the field,” safety Josh Metellus said. “I feel like we’re capable of shutting out anybody in the country. We start slow, but once we pick it up, it’s hard to stop us, offensively and defensively.”

Speed and swagger

The offense actually was expected to start slow this season, the first under new coordinator Josh Gattis, and Patterson struggled early with his decision-making. Improvement was expected by now, and it looks like it’s finally coming. Not just because Patterson has cut down on his turnovers — zero in this one, although he fumbled a couple times — but because the experienced offensive line seems ready to mash people.

“Everybody says the offensive line this, the offensive line that, but we cancel out the noise,” center Cesar Ruiz said. “We know what we can do. Our past two games, we’re playing great on the O-line, best it’s been.”

Never better than in the third quarter, with Michigan still leading 17-0 and the game devolving into a punt-a-palooza. But an interception by Brad Hawkins was wiped out by a phantom pass interference call on Khaleke Hudson, and the Irish got the break they needed. Three plays later, Book hit Cole Kmet for a 7-yard touchdown and suddenly it was 17-7.

With the crowd raining boos at the officials amid the swirling mist, the Wolverines bounced right back, as Haskins busted a 49-yard run to set up a touchdown pass from Patterson to Donovan Peoples-Jones. If that’s a sign the offense is hitting its stride as Harbaugh suggested weeks ago, the defense looks fully back in stride.

Its speed is becoming more evident, led by sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone, who contained the edges brilliantly and led the team with 12 tackles. And on this day, the ol’ swagger was back too.

“I believe we’ve always had it, and the second half at Penn State, we realized what our team can do,” McGrone said. “(Brown) was proud of us. But we still believe our best football is ahead.”

At least it appears their worst football is behind them. As strategies go, starting slow and finishing fast isn’t necessarily the wisest. But when the Wolverines play like this, finer hours do indeed seem possible.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski