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What we learned from Michigan’s second straight victory over Ohio State

A new era of the rivalry has been ushered in.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Two years ago today, the Michigan football program hit rock bottom following a 27-17 loss to previously winless Penn State. The loss moved the Wolverines to 2-4 on the year, and marked the first time in the history of Michigan Stadium (opened in 1927) the Wolverines did not win a single game at home.

After the game I wrote the following: “The team is broken and there is no trust between the players and coaches,” among other harsh, but fair criticisms. Head coach Jim Harbaugh seemed disinterested, players lacked focus and fans had run out of patience.

It had been five years since Harbaugh had taken over the program and the team had yet to beat Ohio State or even play for a Big Ten Championship. And now, the team felt further away than ever, and had even the most logical supporters thinking terrible thoughts like, “Was Hoke really that bad?”

Michigan football had been cast into irrelevant darkness and the only piercing light was basketball season.

Fast forward 730 days.

The Michigan Wolverines have posted a 24-2 record over the past two seasons — a program record — and have a chance to attain three more, including a second straight conference championship and the always elusive national championship.

Saturday’s 45-23 victory over Ohio State was a statement of confirmation that last season was not a fluke; not just a one-off footnote, but a turning-of-the-page to a new chapter in the most historic rivalry in football. It validated that last year was truly the beginning.

Michigan’s 22-point win ties the 1976 team for the largest margin of victory over the Buckeyes in Columbus since 1946. While last season’s victory was more important to the foundational culture, this year’s was a statement of will facing more challenging obstacles.

The Wolverines’ best offensive player (Blake Corum) played five snaps. Their best edge rusher (Mike Morris) only played 11. Not to mention, playing in the Horseshoe in front of 105,000 blood thirsty Ohioans, against a “focused” team, in great weather, and a “flu-less” Heisman front-running CJ Stroud at quarterback.

On Saturday, we learned a new era of Michigan football has arrived and it was not ushered in by stars, but instead, by the team, the team, the team. The Wolverines won with complementary football on both sides of the ball, and it is impossible to recognize one player without mentioning another in the same sentence.

Try it: offensively, wide receiver Cornelius Johnson ran an incredible corner-post route, and received a strike from quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who stepped up into a perfectly set pocket by his offensive line. Defensively, Mazi Smith forced a rushed throw that allowed Mikey Sainristil enough time to chase down tight end Cade Stover from the opposite hash and knock the ball loose to force a field goal.

It is a chain reaction of shared success that continually sets this team apart from its recent predecessors who crumbled in the biggest moments of the season.

The 11-0 2006 Michigan team fumbled several opportunities to beat Ohio State and earn a trip to the national championship. The 2016 team lost focus at Iowa and then left the outcome of their season to the spot of the ball in Columbus of all places. The 2018 team struggled on the road and saw the Revenge Tour derailed so badly in Columbus it sent the program into a two-year tailspin. Even the beloved 2021 team blew a 16-point second half lead to a Michigan State team centered around one player.

Team 143 has an opportunity to stand apart from any team to ever don the maize and blue, and most teams wearing any colors for that matter. No Michigan team has ever won 13 games in a season and this group has an opportunity for a minimum of 14. Only two teams (2018 Clemson, 2019 LSU) in the history of college football have reached 15 in a season, and the Wolverines have a chance to become the third.

In just two years, the Wolverines have proven that once you have been through the darkness together, basking in the bright lights is easy.

Michigan is 12-0, Harbaugh has never been more engaged, and I have never seen a Michigan team play more together.