ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Lavert Hill reached into the sky with his right hand, pulled the football in and sprinted 23 yards to the end zone to for a touchdown that erased Wisconsin and authored a different story when it comes to the perception of the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan.
Hill’s interception return for a touchdown with 9:55 remaining in the game served as early closing time in a 38-13 blowout in which No. 12 Michigan (6-1, 4-0 Big Ten) owned the primetime spotlight in front of 111,360 fans at Michigan Stadium. Michigan eliminated No. 15 Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1) from the College Football Playoff discussion and sparked renewed interest in what the Wolverines could accomplish, with the understanding more challenges are coming starting with Michigan State next week.
“We’ll be really intense for it,” Harbaugh deadpanned when asked about the Spartans, who on Saturday upended No. 8 Penn State in Happy Valley.
That’s all you get for now. With Michigan, the focus is always on the perception of Harbaugh’s four-year reign in Ann Arbor. He’s now 6-8 in games against ranked opponents, and this broke a six-game losing skid in games spotlighted by ESPN’s College GameDay. He’s by no means “Big Game James,” but as far as this year goes, it’s not about him. He’s not on the hot seat. He’s with the hot team with a hot quarterback in Shea Patterson.
The Wolverines have run off six straight wins since the season-opening 24-17 loss at Notre Dame. Michigan is playing with a newfound edge heading into matchups against Michigan State, Penn State, and, of course, Ohio State. This kept those Playoff and Big Ten championship hopes alive.
“We control our own destiny,” Patterson said. “I think it was a huge win for us tonight. I think it was a statement game. We came out and kind of gave it to them a little bit. We didn’t win. We kind of dominated them.”
Patterson’s playmaking skills kick-started that dominant performance. His 81-yard run in the second quarter, which came after a play-fake to running back Karan Higdon, set up the Wolverines’ first touchdown two plays later. That was part of a half in which Michigan reached plus territory in five of six drives but held a 13-7 lead after two missed field goals. Patterson took ownership of that, too, blaming himself for taking inopportune sacks.
The Wolverines are learning to make use of that playmaking presence. In the third quarter, Patterson and Higdon, with the help of their physical offensive line, rushed for 204 of Michigan’s 320 yards. The Wolverines had the more diverse offense because of Patterson and a running game that wore out Wisconsin. You read that right. They wore out Wisconsin, which finished with 81 rushing yards in the second half. Michigan had 14 carries for 103 yards in the third quarter alone.
Patterson’s 7-yard touchdown with 10:21 left in the third quarter — and the ensuing 2-point conversion to Nico Collins — opened up a 21-7 lead the Wolverines piled onto. Harbaugh said Patterson’s rushing was a difference maker for the offense.
“What it does for your team it opens up a lot for your offense that the defense has to defend,” Harbaugh said. “He did a heck of a job all night with his fakes with ball-handling, with his runs, in all facets.”
From there, the defense — which entered the weekend ranked No. 1 in the FBS by allowing 231 yards a game — finished off the one-dimensional Badgers with ease. Hill’s interception return allowed the Wolverines to start looking ahead to the rivalry game with Michigan State. Hill, Higdon and others have put a label on a game which the Spartans have won two of the last three involving Harbaugh and eight of the last 11 under Mark Dantonio. It’s personal.
In fact, everything is personal now for the Wolverines. How else could you explain the loudspeaker doubling down with two rounds of “Jump Around” by House of Pain — a staple at Wisconsin’s Camp-Randall Stadium — in the last four minutes?
“This was a personal game for us,” Higdon said. “We don’t have good offensive line play, or a run game. We can’t win big games. We laid that to rest tonight.”
Of course, there’s another game to win now, one that gets affixed with Harbuagh’s tenure at Michigan. Harbaugh’s 1-6 record against rivals Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State is a frequent criticism, but his 4-2 record against Wisconsin and Penn State is rarely mentioned. Michigan must go through all those teams to achieve Playoff and Big Ten goals, which Harbaugh continues to maintain are “espoused with the belief improvement leads to success, which will lead to championships.”
When told his players seemed hardened by those big-game criticisms, Harbaugh shook that off. It’s not personal for him. It’s the business of being Michigan’s coach. Turns out he’s better at it than you think.
“Hardened by it?” Harbaugh said. “That’s irrelevant to me. We’ll do what we’ve been doing. We’ll enjoy this win today. Then, we’ll get on to our preparation for our next opponent. That’s Michigan State.”
You can bet Michigan will be really intense for it, too.