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What we learned from Michigan’s victory over Illinois

The Wolverines are on a historic run of success under Jim Harbaugh.

Illinois v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines are currently enjoying their winningest two-year stretch in the history of the program — 23 wins and counting. The Wolverines have won 11 games in back-to-back years for the first time since 1902-03, with Michigan’s last win in 1903 pre-dating the invention of flight by three weeks, so you could say it has been awhile.

I got ahead of myself last week writing about how Team 143 is dominant even when they play poorly. That’s my bad. But following Michigan’s 19-17 ugly victory over Illinois, it is important to remember the adjective “ugly” is far less important than the noun “victory.” Winning is winning at this point in the season, just ask Georgia, TCU, Ohio State, Tenne… Well don’t ask Tennessee.

Michigan had its eyes on the Buckeye prize too much this past week, but still managed to remain unblemished in a game that provided ample excuses to lose. Just to name a few:

  • Starting tight end Luke Schoonmaker, starting left guard Trevor Keegan, dynamic running back Donovan Edwards, starting edge rusher Mike Morris and return man and utility wide receiver A.J. Henning all did not play due to injury
  • All-Universe running back Blake Corum was injured in the first half, while on pace for a career day
  • Michigan lost the turnover battle due to Corum’s fumble on the hit that caused his injury
  • Center Olu Oluwatimi (a UVA transfer) dealt with tragedy this week — both with what happened at Virginia AND his father having a brain tumor removed on Thursday
  • Wide receivers struggled to catch the ball consistently
  • J.J. McCarthy struggled with reads and a case of happy feet in the pocket led to overthrows
  • For the first time all season, Michigan did not dominate the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball

And yet, in the fourth quarter, Michigan’s defense found a way to make stops; Michigan’s offense found a way to move the ball through the air; kicker Jake Moody — our lord and savior — made three field goals in the final frame, including the game-winner on Senior Day.

Until last Saturday, it had been a long time since Michigan fans felt stress to that level. Last year, it was a common occurrence: Rutgers, Nebraska, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State (of course). Those all rose stress levels to uncomfortable heights and the Wolverines responded in four out of the five occurrences to the tune of victory. It was uncertain how this team would perform with its back against the wall, but against Illinois we learned this team possessed a similar resiliency.

Michigan, like Ohio State, has now shown it can win when everything is working (Penn State), and when nothing is working (Illinois). The Wolverines have continued to find a way for 11 straight games and now it all leads to this.

Michigan is one of the final seven teams — Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan, TCU, USC, LSU, Clemson — with a shot to go to the College Football Playoff. Even a loss in Columbus may not spoil the hopes of reaching the CFP, but that losing-inspired optimism has no place at this juncture.

The Wolverines will head to Columbus in five days for the latest version of the “Game of the Century.” A victory in this game can all but guarantee a CFP spot. It could determine the winner of the Heisman Trophy. And most importantly, it secures bragging rights in the best rivalry in sports.

After beating Ohio State last season in the most important game since 1997 for the Michigan program, head coach Jim Harbaugh said, “It feels like the beginning.” In a season perceived by most to be an encore performance, a sequel that couldn’t possibly reach the heights of the original, 2022 has slowly become a second act of the same story, with the possibility of an even greater crescendo.

In 1903, following their worst performance of the season (a tie with Minnesota) the Wolverines demolished Ohio State, 36-0, behind a Haskins-esque performance from Herb Graver, who scored five touchdowns.

Winning has translated seamlessly from 1903 to 2022 for the Wolverines, and perhaps a bounce back performance against the Buckeyes will, too.

So, what are you doing today to beat Ohio State?