ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Less than an hour before kickoff Saturday afternoon, Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh paced the half of the field on which his team was warming up, a slight hitch in his step, clapping frequently. He observed the kicking team. He blew his whistle.
The warm-up concluded with a short punt to the redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers, who went on to have a spectacular day against Michigan State, making two tackles on defense and two receptions on offense for 35 yards and returning three kicks for 81 yards and three punts for 48 yards.
As Peppers fielded the abbreviated punt near the 50-yard line, the entire team sprinted toward him, gathered around him and formed a huge huddle. The ritual embodied the kind of controlled discipline and channeled fury that characterized Harbaugh’s great Stanford and 49ers teams of the past decade.
But who would have thought to question, ultimately, whether a punt would be made?
Saturday’s game ended, of course, with what is likely to become one of the most notorious punt attempts in college football history. On the final play, Michigan’s Blake O’Neill, a redshirt senior, prepared to punt with Michigan at its own 47 and up by 23-21 with 10 seconds left. He fumbled the low snap, and after the ball was batted around, the Michigan State sophomore Jalen Watts-Jackson recovered it and ran 38 yards for the winning touchdown. (Watts-Jackson subsequently dislocated his hip.)
Despite not having trailed for 59 minutes 59 seconds, the No. 12 Wolverines (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) lost, 27-23. No. 7 Michigan State improved to 7-0, 3-0.
“What do we say about last plays?” Harbaugh said after the game. “Unfortunate.”
He added, “Played winning football.”
In contrast to the title of their fight song, the Wolverines were not the victors. Nor are there moral victories in football, particularly at programs like Michigan’s: There are just too few games, and too many other teams competing for the final four playoff spots, to take much heart when it says “L” instead of “W” next to a given game on a schedule.
But there is such a thing as appropriate perspective. This will not be Michigan’s year, but it was never supposed to be. After all, Michigan’s last seven seasons involved two failed coaching tenures and an overall 46-42 record. In those seven seasons, Michigan was 1-6 versus Michigan State.
Even had they won Saturday, the Wolverines would not have looked like a championship team. On offense, they converted only four of 16 third- and fourth-down opportunities and amassed just 230 total yards.
But what is true — not in a hazy, sentimental sense, but in a real one — is that Michigan’s football team is back. And one byproduct of the revival is that the Michigan-Michigan State game was again at the epicenter of the college football universe on a midseason weekend.
“This time last year, no one was talking about this game,” the ESPN analyst David Pollack said Friday. “It was, ‘How bad will Michigan lose?’ ” (The answer last year was 35-11.) Michigan defensive end Willie Henry, a senior, said after the game that this traditional rivalry felt different this year.
“Both teams were winning,” he said. “Everyone thought it would be a great game. It was a great game.”
Even Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio seemed to acknowledge it.
“I think it’s a positive for the entire state,” he told reporters last week. “It’s going to put a lot of eyes across the country on the state of Michigan.”
About 30 minutes before kickoff, the recently retired Steve Spurrier, who coached three Division I teams for a combined 27 seasons, stood on the sideline of Michigan Stadium with the former Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr, also a national champion.
Many of those in the announced crowd of 111,740 — not for nothing is it called the Big House — were at their seats, and Spurrier, after a career coaching in the dominant Southeastern Conference, could not help remarking on the atmosphere.
“He was really impressed with the noise, the intensity of the feeling,” Carr said.
In tangible ways, Michigan’s future looks bright. The recruiting class for 2016 is rated the fifth highest, according to Rivals.com. The university was set to host Isaac Nauta, the top-rated tight end in that class, on Saturday.
As Carr said during the fourth quarter, just before Michigan kicked a field goal to extend its lead to 23-14, “Even if we were 3-3, this program’s on track.”
The same holds at 5-2. The Wolverines are off this week and then, on Halloween, travel to Minnesota. One imagines that before that game, they will again end their warm-up with a ritualized punt.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of an ESPN analyst. He is David Pollack, not Pollock.
An earlier version of this article misstated the size of the announced crowd at the Michigan-Michigan State game on Saturday. It was 111,740, not 110,740.