Jim Harbaugh has captured his first signature win as Michigan’s head coach. The Wolverines pummeled 22nd-ranked BYU on Saturday, thoroughly dominating the Cougars in a 31–0 rout. Michigan outgained BYU 317 yards to 62 in the first half. It led 28–0 with 6:57 remaining in the second quarter.
There were highlights galore. Senior receiver Amara Darboh, who was granted U.S. citizenship on Thursday, hauled in an Odell Beckham Jr.-like one-handed catch. Graduate transfer quarterback Jake Rudock, who threw five interceptions over the first three weeks of the 2015 season, accounted for as many touchdowns (three) in the first 30 minutes Saturday as he did in his previous three outings combined. And junior tailback De’Veon Smith, whose role as the starter was questioned only a few days ago, broke free for a 60-yard touchdown in which he was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, somehow emerged from a tangled pile-up and shook off junior cornerback Michael Davis before dancing into the end zone.
A Michigan program that was the focus of countless off-season headlines—Judge Judy! Shirtless Harbaugh!—delivered on the field, putting itself in position to be ranked for the first time since November 2013 and creating a buzz around the team that was sorely missing from Ann Arbor during most of Brady Hoke’s tenure.
But before we start to speculate on what will come next for Harbaugh & Co., let’s take a moment to appreciate this for it was. This was the best day of Michigan football in at least two years, and possibly even more.
The last time Michigan had a victory this satisfying was probably back on Sept. 7, 2013, when the Wolverines downed Notre Dame 41–30 in front of a record crowd of 115,109. That was a game in which Devin Gardner dazzled, passing for 294 yards, rushing for 82 more and accounting for five total touchdowns. Things, however, would soon go south for Big Blue; Michigan dropped six of its last eight that year, including losing to Penn State, Iowa and Kansas State.
The last Wolverines’ win that felt so complete before that came on Nov. 26, 2011, when Michigan edged Ohio State 40–34 in the Big House to snap a seven-game losing streak against the Buckeyes. Denard Robinson was the key player in that one—he racked up 337 total yards (167 passing, 170 rushing) to go with three scores—but, keep in mind, that was back in Hoke’s debut season with the school.
As for Saturday’s performance against BYU, it was hard to pinpoint any flaws. This was a shellacking, the type of game Michigan’s faithful envisioned when news broke Harbaugh was taking the job on Dec. 29. The offense was coolly efficient, averaging 6.0 yards per play. The defense was stifling, limiting Cougars redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum—he of the last-second Hail Marys in Weeks 1 and 2—to 12-of-28 passing for 55 yards. And the game management factor was off the charts; the Wolverines controlled the time of possession battle 38:38 to 21:22.
Sure, BYU was closing a brutal four-week stretch that also included matchups with quality foes Nebraska, Boise State and UCLA. But this was a great win over a very good opponent. And now that there’s a genuine sense of optimism around Michigan football again, the question is obvious: What comes next?
Well, nobody knows. It’s possible that the Harbaugh turnaround is already in full effect, and Michigan will roll over Maryland and Northwestern before hosting in-state rival Michigan State on Oct. 17. It’s possible Saturday was the Wolverines at their absolute best, and that regression in coming weeks is largely inevitable.
But no matter how things unfold, this is a place Michigan fans have been pining to be for years now: hopeful, with a feeling of possibility, a powerhouse awakening rather than sitting dormant.
In a December interview explaining to SI.com his decision to return to Michigan following his stint with the San Francisco 49ers, Harbaugh refused to make any promises about how the 2015 team would perform. “We’re not making predictions,” he said. “It’s not about describing what we’re going to do. It’s going to be doing it.”
On Saturday, Michigan did something it hasn’t done in a very long time. Now, finally, the task is repeating it.