The Michigan Wolverines had been in these spots before. Off-schedule offensively to start the game. On their toes on the road against a good team. Having to find a way to dig deep in a tough environment. But Saturday’s 49-24 win at Minnesota was different.
So often in these types of contests, we would watch a team take the field that was not sure if it was ready for the big moment, especially with the lights shining the brightest. They do not get any brighter than a Saturday Night Football game on ABC with ESPN’s College GameDay kicking things off. Sure, there were not fans there, but perhaps that was an even weirder development to soak in.
One does not have to go back in time to see examples of how bad starts equal stressful outcomes. In the first three games last season, Michigan fumbled on its first drive of the game on offense. The defense would be on skates and out of position. Even when these things remedied themselves late in the year, the gun shots to the foot still occurred against teams like Penn State, Ohio State and Alabama. It just seemed like the Wolverines were determined to test just how much they were able to overcome.
Maybe it built a callus, or put “steel in their spine,” as their head coach likes to say. But when the time came this offseason for players to step up and say enough was enough, defensive end Aidan Hutchinson says the call was answered.
And it hasn’t always been that way.
“I think this offseason was really (instrumental) in our development as a team in terms of (being a) player-led team,” Hutchinson said on Monday afternoon. “We put an emphasis on players leading instead of coaches, and players taking that first step when adversity hits. All that development in the offseason has really helped us to stay poised in those moments of adversity on the field. When (Minnesota) scored that first touchdown and blocked the kick, we all sat down on the sideline, and there was no one stressing. There was no one getting worried. You can see it and you can feel it that we knew we were just fine. We knew it was the first quarter and there was so much time left. Just that poise, personally I could feel it in our defense. And I think that’s one of the biggest differences with this team from previous teams.”
Team chemistry has been a big talking point in Schembechler Hall all offseason long and the point has been hammered home by having to stay together while preparing for games in a pandemic-altered world. Head coach Jim Harbaugh says that the challenges that this year has presented to his program have revealed a united front in not only keeping morale high, but taking that next step as players and people.
“(This year has) given the opportunity to go through the unknown,” Harbaugh said. “When you go through uncharted waters, people to reveal their character and show how invested they are to the team. We’ve seen that, it’s been great. I think I said the other night, really proud of our guys in that regard. I believe in them, I respect them for what they’ve done and what they are doing. I really trust them. A lot of it is a lot of practicing, a lot of meetings and also things that they’ve gone through and experienced.
“How they’ve been able to keep their focus and just do right. Just do the right things. Combination of all those things.”
Saturday’s win was fueled by one of the most complete team effort’s of the Harbaugh era at Michigan with contributors from all corners of the roster helping secure the victory. Harbaugh himself dropped the term “unheralded” six times during his Monday press conference describing some of these contributions.
As long as this keeps up and morale stays high, they might have something interesting here.