Jim Harbaugh wanted to know, just like everyone else.
Even three games into the season, Michigan was a mystery, losing to its only respected opponent but handling business against the bottom-feeders.
Saturday offered a resounding answer, as the Wolverines crushed No. 22 Brigham Young, 31-0 at Michigan Stadium, looking like a team on a rapid rise.
“In my opinion, that was the best team we’ve played this season,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, whose team previously played at Nebraska, vs. then-No. 20 Boise State and then-No. 9 UCLA. “Not only physically, but execution-wise. A credit to their staff having their team prepared the way they were.”
The best judge of progress is history, checking boxes long forgotten.
The Wolverines (3-1) beat a ranked team for the first time since September 2013. They dropped a shutout for the first time since blanking Illinois in October 2012.
And they made sure this loss would be different than anything Mendenhall had seen in his 11 years as the Cougars’ head coach, with the program’s first shutout since 2003, two years before he took over.
For two weeks, the Michigan defense kicked itself, dwelling on a lone touchdown surrendered each week. But they wanted more on Saturday and got it.
Allowing just 105 yards to a team averaging 432. Forcing three-and-outs on eight of 12 drives. Neutering a 311-yards-per-game passing attack to just 55 yards.
There may be a higher level, but this was pretty close to the ceiling.
“It’s great to be a part of a shutout,” Harbaugh said, praising his defensive staff. “To only give up 105 yards, I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of one of those in a shutout. Outstanding in so many areas.”
Michigan’s offense may have enjoyed it just as much, knowing it had the freedom to take chances, not dealing with a thin margin for error.
Beginning with the second drive of the game, the Wolverines seemed to be playing against their own capabilities, instead of searching for consistency.
Maligned quarterback Jake Rudock led four consecutive touchdown drives – U-M’s first time since the 2013 Central Michigan game – and produced in all different ways, with his first turnover-free game of the season.
On the first drive, he executed a beautiful play fake and held the ball on third down before hitting tight end Khalid Hill over the middle down to the 1, before running the touchdown in himself two plays later. On the second drive, after connecting with tight end Jake Butt with a 41-yard catch and run, the longest passing play of the season, he used his savvy, a hard count drawing BYU offsides. He capped the touchdown drive hitting Amara Darboh in the end zone.
It was enough to send BYU (2-2) reeling. Tailback De’Veon Smith took a handoff into the scrum and emerged, breaking tackles and rumbling for a 60-yard touchdown. Then Rudock ripped off another 3 ½ minute scoring drive, ending it by showing off his feet with a 15-yard scoring run.
Just to show they were human, the Wolverines kicked a field goal for the first time since the season opener to push the margin to 31-0 by halftime.
They wouldn’t score again in the second half, despite two 11-play drives, so there may be teaching points, but after that game against a respected opponent, it may be nitpicking.
“It feels good to finally beat a ranked team,” said Smith, whose team was 1-9 against ranked teams since the start of 2012. “It goes back to the week of preparation. We keep making statements that (against) ranked teams, we don’t fear ranked teams.”
For the first time since early November 2013, Michigan may be one of those.
With a performance worthy of it.
Michigan running back De’Veon Smith RB broke this tackle by Brigham Young University’s Michael Davis on his way to a second quarter 60 yard touch down on Saturday, September 26, 2015, in Ann Arbor.