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What we learned from win No. 1,000 for the Michigan Wolverines

Team 144 will answer every question in six days.

Michigan v Maryland Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines held on to beat the Maryland Terrapins on Saturday for win No. 1,000 in program history and have now started 11-0 in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1901-02.

Please read that again and let that sink in.

These are the good times. Some of Michigan’s wins in 1902 included Albion, Case, and Michigan Agricultural (Michigan State), and its offense ran the “short punt” scheme to perfection. While the opponents have slightly changed and the offenses have evolved — unless you play in Iowa City — Michigan has once again found its way to the top of the sport.

Every week for the last five years, I have been writing to you on Monday mornings about what we learned from the game on Saturday. Some weeks were great, some not so great, but every week were provided answers to some degree. However, this week, given these extenuating circumstances, we learned that some games provide answers, while others only provide questions that will only be answered against Ohio State.

Did Saturday’s win reinforce the notion that even Michigan’s best team in 20 years could have a letdown game?

Legendary head coach Bill Walsh once talked about how it is impossible for a team to get up for every game. Letdown games and lethargic performances are a part of any season, but good teams find a way to win even on bad days. Make no mistake about it, Saturday was a bad game for the team from Ann Arbor, but frankly, how could it not have been?

Michigan was coming off the second-most emotional win of the last decade after rallying together in the face of unprecedented adversity before a road game against a top-10 Penn State team. Blood streamed down Blake Corum’s face as tears flooded interim head coach Sherrone Moore’s. Corum had just helped carry his team to victory and Moore had achieved a milestone coaching victory after being named the acting head coach less than 24 hours before the game. The postgame celebration was well-deserved and the flight home was probably nothing short of pure elation.

But as the sun rose the next day and the high wore off, Michigan was back to work to prepare to face…Maryland. The Terps are a scrappy team, but there is no way they were going to be any match for the mighty Wolverines who just ran the ball 32 straight times against the nation’s former top rushing defense.

No way, right?

While no player or coach will admit to this feeling of superiority, it is only human nature to experience an emotional hangover after an unimaginable high. Even without a high as the one felt against Penn State, the Wolverines have demonstrated an ability to go through the motions against inferior competition.

The 2021 Rutgers, Nebraska and Penn State performances all come to mind. No one should be able to forget Michigan completing only one second-half pass, while rushing for only 112 yards against Rutgers’ No. 79-ranked rushing defense one week before traveling to Madison.

In 2022, Michigan came out flat against Maryland and Illinois, and expected TCU to just hand it an invitation to the National Championship. Even this season against Bowling Green — while not reflected in the final score — Michigan showed up against the Falcons more so to observe the new lights in the Big House than to play a focused game.

Letdown games are a part of the sport and for the most part, Michigan has always been able to secure victory even in the jaws of defeat. But was something else afoot regarding Michigan’s underwhelming performance?

Did Saturday’s win confirm Michigan is on borrowed time without Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines?

The head coach is the central figure in a college football program. The top coach is responsible for hiring assistants who mirror his philosophy and echo his identity, while establishing a culture conducive to winning, consistency and longevity. Although it took some time, Jim Harbaugh has done just that during his time in Ann Arbor.

Harbaugh has guided the Wolverines to a 36-3 record since the start of the 2021 season and has his team on the precipice of its third-straight win over Ohio State, Big Ten Championship, and College Football Playoff berth. However, Harbaugh cannot be there to help take this team over the top.

As everyone reading this knows, Harbaugh is currently serving his second three-game suspension of the season that ends after Saturday’s game against the Buckeyes. Michigan rallied behind Moore and each other to get the job done against the Nittany Lions, but is this emotional gravity enough to pull the team through to the end of the season?

Against Maryland, something was off. Perhaps it was just the existential weight of being a Michigan fan and seeing your favorite team struggle under the immense weight of relentless media scrutiny and pressure. Or maybe it was a team struggling to focus without its leader. A team starting to feel the weight of distractions as they balance game prep, interviews with NCAA investigators and a coach being fired.

If something is off against Ohio State — beyond the pent-up, internal panic shared by everything fan in maize and blue — Michigan will likely not be able to win. This team, after all, is comprised of human beings. Human beings that can only block out the noise so much when they are faced with questions daily from peers, classmates, friends, family and everyone in between about the alleged sign-stealing. Human beings that came to Michigan to be coached and led by Harbaugh to victory.

A step-back in focus and leadership was expected without Harbaugh, but it is not impossible that these players and assistants rally one more time on Senior Day before their head ball coach returns.

Did Saturday’s win serve as a reminder the game before “The Game” doesn’t matter beyond the narrow scope of winning?

The week before Michigan and Ohio State’s annual clash is largely meaningless and indicative of nothing as it pertains to the following week. Let’s run through how both teams have entered the rivalry throughout the Harbaugh era compared to the final result.

2022: Michigan squeaked by Illinois, 19-17, while the Buckeyes handled Maryland, 43-30. The next week, Michigan traveled south to smoke Ohio State, 45-23. But hey, it was only the big plays.

2021: Michigan beat Maryland, 52-17, and Ohio State pounded Michigan State — the only team to beat the Wolverines — into submission, 56-7, which included a 49-0 lead at halftime. The Wolverines and Hassan Haskins proceeded to run over the Buckeyes the next week.

2019: Michigan entered on a four-game winning streak where it never allowed more than 14 points and never scored less than 38 points while opening up its passing attack. Ohio State entered undefeated and embarrassed the Wolverines for the second straight year, 56-27. This season was the one exception where the game went completely as expected.

2018: Michigan had all the momentum riding a 10-game, revenge-fueled winning streak, while the Buckeyes limped in after surviving a 52-51 overtime thriller against Maryland. The Buckeyes had already been blown out, 49-20, earlier in the year, and hopes were high for this Michigan team to end the losing streak to Ohio State. The Buckeyes smoked Michigan, 62-39, in a game that never even felt close.

2017: Michigan crawled into this game like a wounded soldier following a 24-10 loss to Wisconsin and the loss of its top two quarterbacks. Ohio State had hit a two-game resurgence after dropping its second game of the season, including a 48-3 demolition of No. 12 Michigan State. Shockingly, Michigan took a 14-0 lead with John O’Korn leading the charge, but could not hold on. The Buckeyes outlasted Michigan’s third-stringer, 31-20.

2016: Michigan was refocused after dropping a game to Iowa two weeks earlier, and one-loss Ohio State was fresh off a 17-16 nail-biter against three-win Michigan State. It was a back-and-forth battle, but Ohio State prevailed in double overtime.

2015: Michigan entered playing the best football of its season, and Ohio State had just lost to Michigan State the week prior. Despite the game being in Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes rolled through the Wolverines, 42-13.

This season, both teams enter 11-0 for the third time ever and the second time in two years. Nothing else matters except what takes place Saturday at noon in the greatest rivalry in college football. In a sport, where some games provide questions, “The Game” only provides answers.