Non-conference play is finished, takes have been flying all over the place like the cows in Twister, and a quarter of the 2021 Michigan football season is already in the books.
The Wolverines are undefeated and have won by an average of just under 36 points per game. But questions persist despite the early season success.
Can Michigan run the ball against better competition? Can Cade McNamara consistently throw the ball when need be? How good is Mike Macdonald’s defense?
While those questions will be answered in due time, these are three things that non-conference play taught us about Team 142.
Who are you? Not to wade too much into the existential deep, but this is a question we all ask ourselves from time to time. The power is not in what the answer is, but merely having an answer. For the past two years, the Wolverines have been searching and coming up empty.
Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis joined the staff in 2019 and while innovation was needed, an overcorrection was not.
Gattis opened up the offense but became over-reliant on the passing game. 2019 saw the rushing yards per game drop from over 200 yards in 2018 to 150 yards; 2020 saw that number drop to 131 rushing yards per game, the lowest of a Jim Harbaugh coached college team since his first year at Stanford.
Something had to change.
Harbaugh renewed the team’s identity this season in the physicality of the Michigan and Stanford teams past.
Last week, I wrote about trench warfare on offense, but it is not just limited to that side of the ball. Equally, the defense has adopted the same mindset. Look no further than Vincent Gray, who against Northern Illinois, was closing on ball carriers like a linebacker.
This team views the word “finesse” as if it were Latin for “impotence.” Michigan may not be the best team in the Big 10, but they are making a strong case for being the most physical.
As long as the team does not get blown out and pull a Scott Frost and talk about outhitting opponents, being the most physical team in the conference is a good thing.
Self Aware Edge
This is the first Jim Harbaugh coached Michigan team that is vocal about their self-awareness. Harbaugh spoke at Big 10 media days about the importance of Ohio State and on Monday, Mike Morris offered one of the most honest answers in recent memory.
When asked about the underdog mentality, Morris answered with: “We know if we lose a game everyone’s gonna say ‘Oh, Michigan sucks again.’”
The team understands the perception and reputation surrounding the program. Players and coaches are aware of all the “Just beat Ohio” comments and the importance of returning the program to prominence.
This team is not approaching games like an elitist big brother and the awareness has translated into an edge on the field.
4th and 9 against Northern Illinois up by a million, Harbaugh goes for it. Pounding the rock on consecutive plays for an entire series and daring Washington to stop the flood.
The edge is reminiscent of faking a field goal against Rutgers up by five touchdowns in 2016.
Michigan understood something had to change within the program because a physical team without an edge is like a barking dog without a bite.
The bite from these Wolverines was developed from the rubble remaining after last season and built from the ground up.
2019 saw a lethargic team flash from time to time, but the cracks in the foundation were already beginning to show. 2020 saw the entire infrastructure collapse, catch on fire, and several players run from the remains (most verbally: Joe Milton and Giles Jackson).
Players, coaches, and fans alike were heading for the hills. “Fire Harbaugh” became the new “Go Blue” rallying cry after an embarrassing loss to Michigan State among others. The team was broken inside out and internal fractures are seldom mended by the same person who oversaw the break.
Culture changes have to come from the top down, but that does not guarantee players believing in this revamped coaching staff or philosophy.
In the era of player empowerment and athletes ‘securing the bag,’ could Harbaugh find reconciliation with the players?
Maybe because of the financial situation, maybe because of faith, but Athletic Director Warde Manuel retained and extended Jim Harbaugh under a new performance-based contract.
Coaching staff changes ensued and the hyperbolic coach-speak began. “This team is different.” Prove it. “Changes have been made.” Prove it. “The culture is good.” Prove it.
The offseason felt like staying with a girlfriend who had gotten worse with time, but promised this time things would be different. So far, the relationship has been rekindled and the examples extend beyond the whistles.
Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins return to the sidelines to celebrate with the offensive linemen after every rushing touchdown. Aidan Hutchinson comforting freshman Rod Moore after allowing a touchdown to Washington. Players celebrating the success of teammates after every big play.
These are the little things that speak to a stronger bond within the program. Above all, football just looks fun at Michigan for the first time since the 2018 Revenge Tour.
The true culture of this team will be tested in inevitable moments of adversity, but if Michigan can continue to build upon their early season foundation, it could bring new meaning to ‘those who stay will be champions.’