Michigan football: 'Cold, dark place' mentality helps push Wolverines WR Cornelius Johnson
Sometimes, it takes being put in an uncomfortable position in order to come out on the winning end of a situation. Michigan, perhaps more than any other team in the nation, knows that to be incredibly true — especially this season. Absent from the preseason top 25, the Wolverines surged to 12-1, finding themselves at No. 2 heading into the College Football Playoff semifinal vs. No. 3 Georgia.
It’s been quite a turn of events for Jim Harbaugh’s program, and that’s putting it lightly. UM had a 2 percent chance of winning the Big Ten East Division and was far less likely to make the 4-team Playoff.
On New Year’s Eve, the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami will be the centerpiece of college football, with the winner advancing to the CFP championship bout vs. No. 1 Alabama or No. 4 Cincinnati.
This is the final stretch for the Wolverines, who continuously improved throughout each phase of the season. First, it was the highly anticipated opener vs. Washington — a test that Michigan passed without any issues. Then, it was time for non-con play, which the Wolverines thoroughly dominated.
First road test with conference opponent Wisconsin?
No problem, either.
Michigan won games, climbed the rankings and was ready for a top-10 faceoff with its in-state rival — the first top 10 meeting since the 1960s.
Following that 37-33 loss at Michigan State, things could have taken a massive dive into the deep end for Michigan. Down, down, down into to cold abyss.
A lonely place.
A space where you either fight for progress or succumb to pressure — and UM fought the rest of the way, beating Ohio State, 42-27, for the first time since 2011 and taking down Iowa, 42-3, in the Big Ten Championship Game.
“That’s an interesting point. You could look at it as phases,” Michigan WR Cornelius Johnson said during the final media appearance before heading to Miami. “For example, like, say you take it month-by-month — you know? Just break it up. (Starting) with September. Then you’ve got October and November …”
Not only does the feel of the game change, but so does the feel of the ball; it mimics the tone of the season in some ways, says Johnson, who had team-highs in catches (38), receiving yards (609) and touchdowns (3, tied with Roman Wilson). Johnson also had some of his biggest moments during the most important stretches: career-high 117 yards to conclude non-con play vs. Northern Illinois; 2 touchdowns vs. Wisconsin; and a career-high 6 catches vs. Michigan State, just to name a few.
“That ball, in November, is different than that ball you see in September and October, know what I mean? But like you’re saying, it’s phases … especially once you get into December. … Once December rolls around, you know how it gets in December, so you’ve got to be ready for that, mentally,” Johnson said. “It gets cold. Not just literally, it gets cold in the sense of ‘you’ve just got to dig deep.’ ”
During the regular season, there was room for error. There was a certain lenience and understanding when it came to team growing pains. But now, approaching the end of the calendar year, there is no room for anything but perfection. Dwelling in that uncomfortable space allows Johnson to digest the situation at-hand and evaluate the next moves.
“It’s gotten to the point where you have to put yourself in that dark place … it’s almost in that sense, where your future, you can’t be thinking about the future. It all just comes down to one day,” said Johnson, who then followed with an appropriate comparison.
And queue the Eminem/8 Mile reference in 5… 4… 3… 2…
“You’ve got one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you’ve ever wanted,” said Johnson, wearing a hoodie and channeling his inner B. Rabbit.
As one of the premier pieces of Michigan’s offense, Johnson realizes that he has to continue playing at his current clip. Whether it’s punt blocks or receptions, or just a timely downfield block, he’s been a cornerstone for a program seeking its first national title since Bill Clinton was still in office (another Eminem reference for the Slim Shady crowd).
But remaining calm and remembering that all fields are “still just 100 yards long” helps Johnson focus on the upcoming task vs. Georgia. He’s trying not to get “caught up in the hype” that surrounds one of Michigan’s greatest seasons in program history. And really, when you think about it, the Wolverines’ 2021 season has to be among the best of any Big Ten team within the past 20 years.
“It does wear on you, because you know it’s not just any other game; it’s a bowl game,” Johnson said, later adding: “That’s how I try to think about it.”