Wolverines grew up after loss to Irish

Braylon Edwards is honest enough to admit it: Sometimes he wonders what might have been.

Sure, his focus this week is on his team's annual feud with Ohio State. If Michigan wins, the Wolverines are headed to Pasadena for the second straight year.

But sometimes Edwards' mind strays to a steamy September day in South Bend, when Notre Dame capitalized on three second-half turnovers to produce a stunning 28-20 victory. It's Michigan's only loss this season.

"You're not supposed to (think about that) because of the way things are going now," Edwards said. "Things are going exceptionally well.

"But everyone on the team has done that. If we hadn't lost, we'd have a chance to play for the national championship. But you can't think like that. You have to be thankful for what you have. We could have easily gone into the tank after that game. Instead we're playing for a Rose Bowl bid."

What also helps Edwards avoid the woe-is-us syndrome is the knowledge that the Wolverines barely resemble the team they were in September.

Metaphorically speaking, freshman quarterback Chad Henne was in diapers when the season began and was called on to replace the injured Matt Gutierrez. And Michigan's running game was a joke, producing 1.9 yards per carry against the Irish. Mike Hart was merely a pint-sized freshman trying to find his way around campus.

"When the season first started we were just OK -- average at best," said Edwards, who ranks fourth in the nation in receptions. "But we kept working, and we improved on the practice field; Tuesday to Friday is when we made it happen."

But there was also a meaningful Sunday -- the Sunday following the Notre Dame debacle.

As Edwards tells it, senior cornerback Marlin Jackson stepped up in front of the team during a meeting and bared his soul.

"He was crying, full of emotion," Edwards said. "He was yelling: 'We have to go! This isn't for play!' He made everybody feel it."

Edwards said the turning point in the season wasn't the Wolverines' 30-17 victory over Iowa two weeks after the Notre Dame loss -- or their fourth-quarter comebacks against Minnesota or Michigan State. The moment came when Jackson demanded excellence from his teammates.

After Jackson had his say, Edwards told the team co-captain: "Way to be a leader."

In the two months since the Notre Dame loss, Michigan has built its way back up. The Wolverines were seventh in the ESPN/USA Today poll before losing to the Irish, and now they're seventh after winning their last eight games.

Ohio State hasn't been ranked since losing 33-7 to Iowa on Oct. 16. But that might make them even more dangerous.

In 2001, the Wolverines were one victory away from a share of the conference title and a BCS bowl berth. But 6-4 Ohio State, coming off a 12-point loss to Illinois, shocked the Wolverines 26-20.

"There's a saying up here," Edwards said, "'It all comes down to Ohio.' The longer you're here, the more you believe it."

Teddy Greenstein covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Tribune.