Michigan football: 2021 Wolverines a lot like 2016 Wolverines
It’s better late than never, right?
For all the criticism that Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines have faced over the years, it seems like the grand plan is finally coming to fruition.
Saturday’s 21-17 win at Penn State was a milestone moment for Michigan, proving that this year’s team isn’t a farce — the Wolverines are the real deal and control their own destiny.
For the past two weeks, the Wolverines have shown their true colors. They’re not the prettiest team in college football. They may not blow up stat sheets on a weekly basis, either. But they have a backbone. They’re a team that “never flinches,” per Harbaugh.
Losing to Michigan State was probably the best thing that’s happened to Michigan this year — other than winning 9 of 10 games, of course. That 37-33 setback has propelled the Wolverines to the forefront of the Big Ten race. Some doubted the Wolverines after that 4-point loss in East Lansing, predicting a fallout after stumbling against the Spartans.
Nah, they just woke up after that one. They’ve found their identity.
With a season-high 7 sacks vs. the Nittany Lions, the Wolverines flexed their defensive muscle. At first, some suggested that DE Aidan Hutchinson and LB David Ojabo were, possibly, the best pass-rushing duo in college football. After Saturday, that was no longer just a suggestion or idea, it was fact.
No team has a tandem like Hutchinson and Ojabo. Hutchinson had 3 sacks on PSU QB Sean Clifford. Ojabo bagged Clifford twice. Michigan finished with 12 tackles for a loss, living in the Nittany Lions’ backfield like it was their property.
Shades of 5 years ago.
Hutchinson is the best player of the Harbaugh era, regardless of position. He should be in the Heisman Trophy conversation. Ojabo, a former practice squad all-star, has played himself into first-round NFL draft consideration, all while entering the exclusive club of Harbaugh-era greats.
This is Michigan.
And it’s built on a foundation of defense and attitude.
The Wolverines don’t care what anyone thinks about them, either. They know who they are, so outside opinions aren’t valid in their eyes. This year’s team is reminiscent of the 2016 team, a group that was on the doorstep of the College Football Playoff in Harbaugh’s second season in Ann Arbor.
Same resilient mindset. Similar levels of talent.
Down and out after Michigan State?
No, it’s more like “up and at them.”
Harbaugh has another CFP-worthy team. Michigan is No. 4 in the ESPN FPI and has a 33.9% chance of going to the playoffs.
Look back at the 2016 team, and you’ll see several similarities: Great run game, lots of talent at WR, a game-managing QB with some flair (Wilton Speight had more than Cade McNamara, but that’s another story) and a dominant defense. That year, the Wolverines finished with the No. 1-ranked total defense, tied with Alabama at 261.8 yards per game.
Right now, Michigan is No. 6 in total defense, giving up 298.1 yards per game.
In 2016, De’Veon Smith carried the load, rushing 181 times for 846 yards and 1o touchdowns. This season, Hassan Haskins has toted the rock 196 times for 985 yards and 11 touchdowns. With 11 catches for 89 yards, he’s also a threat in the passing game.
A strong ground attack anchored by a reliable ball-carrier was a key ingredient 5 years ago. That’s true this time around. As Blake Corum heals from a foot/ankle injury, Haskins will have to shoulder the majority of the responsibility. He did that Saturday against Penn State, much in the same way that Smith held it down for the Wolverines in 2016.
Position by position, stat by stat, there are so many common threads from 2016 woven into the 2021 Wolverines. The running back comparison and brief reference to the defenses were just conversation starters.
In 2016, Speight threw for 2,538 yards, connecting for 18 touchdowns and completing 61.6% of his passes. Look at McNamara’s numbers from this year: 1,883 yards and 12 TDs through 10 games, completing 62.9% of his attempts. Speight was the best QB of the Harbaugh era, but McNamara is actually making a case for himself this season. McNamara’s decision-making and game-management skills can’t be ignored.
He turns the ball over less than Speight, who threw 7 picks in 2016, and completes more of his attempts. Speight had the better arm but McNamara has demonstrated better decision making, evidenced by 2 interceptions through 10 games. Other than being sacked vs. Penn State, and fumbling, he has gone relatively unharmed this year — a lot like how Speight was in 2016.
The 2016 team had a backbone. It had attitude.
The 2021 Wolverines aren’t a carbon copy, but they’re cut from the same mold.