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Why 2021 Michigan football is different from other Harbaugh-led teams

Michigan won a game it normally loses in the past.

Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Saturday night was different for the Michigan Wolverines after a thrilling 32-29 victory at Nebraska. Quarterback Cade McNamara put it correctly, saying, “Michigan teams in the past, no disrespect, but I think since I’ve been at Michigan we lose this game.”

He’s not wrong. Michigan has not exactly been clutch under head coach Jim Harbaugh. Remember 2015 against Michigan State? How about 2016 at Iowa? There are other examples, but we don’t need to beat a dead horse here. The bottom line is this year is different. Why? To me, it boils down to three things.


I think the faces of McNamara and Jake Moody said it all. After McNamara threw his first interception as a college quarterback, ESPN cut to his face. He didn’t look mad or devastated; he looked ready. Nebraska made short order of scoring the go-ahead touchdown. Terrible timing. Terrible read. Terrible throw. Yet, when he returned to the field minutes later, he led the offense down the field to retake the lead (he would lead them down there again for a field goal to tie it later).

McNamara’s the quarterback with less arm talent and less speed. Yet, his leadership, poise, strength and demeanor led Michigan to a win in what ended up being its toughest road matchup this season up to this point.

Moody, the best kicker Michigan has had in a very long time, had that same demeanor. His fourth quarter kicks could have been confused with warmups. The moment was not too big for Moody. He was all business. This team knows what it takes, and is simply going out, executing and moving on.


When Harbaugh was hired, his passion and emotion were on full display. This was true on the football field as much as on Twitter. After a costly penalty in the 2016 Ohio State game, coupled with a rough 2017 campaign, Harbaugh began to internalize some of that passion and emotion. Big Ten Media Days were full of coyness and vagueness.

Now, he is still coy and vague in 2021. But he is back to arguing on the sidelines, back to his outspoken pride of his football team and back to having fun.

Clutch “Gene”

In recent years, Michigan would not win a game like the Nebraska game because it couldn’t perform in the clutch. This Michigan team ran all over Washington in the second half, shut down Rutgers’ offense when it needed to most, intercepted Chase Wolf whenever he attempted to move the ball past the chains, and stripped one of the best quarterbacks in the conference to win on the road.

The clutch “gene” has been around for some plays, some games and some teams. This team has performed in the clutch more this season than any other before under Harbaugh. And this will be crucial in games against three top 10 teams to end the year.

A road win at night in the Big Ten is huge. Michigan is nowhere done, nor should it be. Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State have been Michigan’s Achilles Heel under Harbaugh, and this team will need all the attitude, coaching and clutch it can get.