Michigan was never going to get redemption for its losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. The first was too demoralizing, the second was too damaging. Those defeats are on the record, and the record can't be altered.
But vindication? Proof that this team is better than it's shown through the first two months of the season? That was there for the taking Saturday night against Notre Dame, and Michigan grabbed it with both hands and never let go.
By the end of this 45-14 demolition, the Wolverines had something real to hold onto for the first time this year.
"I saw it coming," Jim Harbaugh said. "Just watching them prepare, watching the details in the meetings and just how important it was to them, the day in, day out work in practice, the growth, you could see it."
Harbaugh has made such claims throughout the season. Until Saturday night, it was hard to believe him. His faith felt manufactured, and at certain times blind. But Harbaugh trusted in what he was seeing, and on a big stage in front of a national audience, it was finally put on public display.
There was the run game, and there was the offensive line leading the way. Michigan topped 300 yards rushing for the first time this season, getting back to what Harbaugh's teams have always done best. It was necessary on a soaking wet night, which added to the satisfaction for the group up front.
"It felt good to impose our will," said guard Michael Onwenu. "We knew what kind of game it was going to be, we knew we were going to be grounding and pounding a lot, and it’s the game we’ve been waiting for. We love running the ball, and we knew today we were going to be able to showcase it."
Sitting to Onwenu's left, center Cesar Ruiz nodded his head.
"I knew it was coming sooner or later," he said.
There was the defense, and there it was from the start. There was no blitzing Don Brown's unit on this night, not like we've seen in so many big tests before. This was a complete effort, from the D-line to the secondary, the fusion of aggression and awareness that makes it so hard for the offense to move the ball. The Irish averaged just 3.0 yards per play, and it was lower than that for much of the night.
"I know what this defense is capable of. I feel like we’re capable of shutting anybody out," said safety Josh Metellus. "If we execute at the right time and everybody’s locked in doing their job, we can shut anybody out in the country."
If Devin Bush was the face of the defense last year, this year it's becoming Cam McGrone. He had a game-high 12 tackles on Saturday, flying to the ball at every turn. The defense as a whole was swarming, and Brown was storming, the two sides feeding off each other like they often have in the past. They took advantage of a Notre Dame offense that wasn't fit for the conditions, and they relished every second of it.
Long time coming, said McGrone.
"We’re taking leaps, and I believe we’ve always had it. It was just (a matter of) us clicking," he said. "That second half of Penn State I think we really found what our team can do, and we can do it whenever we want."
There was Shea Patterson, using his legs on a night his arm wasn't a weapon. This wasn't Patterson's game to shine, but he shimmied when he needed to, keeping the offense on schedule on most of its drives. And when the rain relented in the second half, Patterson put the game away with a couple touchdown strikes to his top two receivers, first Donovan Peoples-Jones, then Nico Collins. There they were, too.
"That was really the first time on all cylinders we played our best game, and when we do that we’re really tough to beat," Patterson said.
And throughout it all, there was Harbaugh, drenched by the rain but breathing the fire on the sideline that's been missing this season. He roared each time Michigan scored, pumping both his arms, looking once again like a coach who wants to run headlong into the heat. With Michigan up 24-7 in the fourth quarter, Harbaugh kept gunning for more, until it was 45-7 and the Irish were ash.
Over and over in his post-game press conference, Harbaugh praised his players for learning from their losses. Their breakthrough finally arrived, and it a came at a time the Wolverines needed it badly.
"They’ve had some tests, they’ve taken some criticism, but have the mindset to just keep working and keep growing, and that leads to a really great victory. And it’s a great lesson for them, because not everybody can do that. That's why I’m really proud of our team and have so much respect for the guys. To be able to know that at a young age, 18 to 22 years old, that bodes well," said Harbaugh.
Those two losses remain on Michigan's resume. There's no escaping that, nor the fact that their postseason goals are likely no longer in reach. But Harbaugh and Michigan finally put some weight into their words, which makes it easier to believe words like these.
"We still believe that our best football is ahead," said McGrone.