Michigan football: Key factors that have sparked success for the Wolverines through 3 weeks
During his Monday press conference, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was asked why the Wolverines appear to be “much improved” as opposed to previous seasons.
Harbaugh, who has constantly cited consistency, followed with an appropriate response.
“Good things happen when you play hard,” he said. “Energy — energy just finds the ball; whether you’re on defense or whether you’re on offense … energy … the ball finds you … it’s both.”
It’s difficult to deny the fact that Michigan has displayed more energy this season, at least through 3 games. It’s hard to ignore that the Wolverines seem to have a lot of things progressing nicely on offense, specifically their run game and development at the QB position.
While it’s a bit early to hop on the Michigan bandwagon, despite ESPNs FPI projecting 12-0 for UM based on game-by-game odds, it’s not too early to analyze what has really clicked for Harbaugh’s squad as it prepares to host 3-0 Rutgers on Saturday in Ann Arbor.
The following factors have afforded an undefeated start, kickstarted a potent offense and allowed for the emergence of key personnel. Michigan hasn’t landed at No. 19 and 3-0 by chance. Here is how the Wolverines have found success so far.
For the first time since 2017, the Wolverines appear to be having fun on the field. They’ve had spurts here and there since 2017, but it’s been a good three years since they’ve looked so confident and eager to take the field. A change in culture has been cited as a reason, along with changes in the coaching staff — but at the end of the day, it comes down to players’ mentality as they approach each Saturday.
Teams that get along tend to win more games than teams that have internal strife. Through 3 weeks, there haven’t been any rumblings about discontent within the Wolverines’ locker room, a 180-degree turn from the previous two seasons in which there were plenty of chirpings about dissatisfied players in Ann Arbor.
Getting along is one thing; it’s great and all, but there still needs to be steady leadership at the top of the ladder.
Luckily, the Wolverines have that in senior LB Josh Ross, senior DE Aidan Hutchinson and sophomore QB Cade McNamara.
Following Michigan’s 48-42 triple-OT, comeback win over Rutgers in 2020, McNamara was caught on camera hyping up his locker room, screaming with joy and satisfaction in knowing that the Wolverines overcame a mental hurdle.
“Let’s f—ing build on this sh-t, boys!” he said with emotion in a since-deleted video. “Let’s get it. What happens if we win out, huh? Who’s going to remember all the f—ing games before (this), man?”
Michigan didn’t win out, but it obviously took steps in a positive direction following 2020’s disappointing 2-4 finish.
Ross, who’s been around for 5 years, is a prime example of what every team should have at the linebacker position. Not only is he a gifted player, but he’s also a knowledgeable veteran who has demonstrated leadership skills since his 2017 arrival to Ann Arbor.
Andrew Vastardis, also a graduate student, emerged in 2020 as a candidate for an authoritative role. Despite not being a starter, his maturity was always mentioned during interviews, whether by coaches or players, since the 2019 season. He was always on the brink of cracking the two-deep.
For the second straight season, he’s the starting center and a key piece of the Wolverines’ offensive line.
According to teamranking.com, Michigan has the No. 11-ranked total offense among FBS programs, averaging roughly 543 yards per contest. This past Saturday, UM put up a season-high 606 yards during a 63-10 home win over Northern Illinois.
Blake Corum, running back, has torn up the stats sheet, ranking No. 1 in all-purpose yards and among the top 10 rushers. Other Wolverines, such as WRs AJ Henning, Roman Wilson, Daylen Baldwin and Cornelius Johnson have all come up with big-yardage plays at one time or another.
Whether it was Henning’s 20-plus-yard returns or receptions, or Johnson’s 87-yard TD catch from McNamara vs. NIU, or Baldwin’s 69-yard TD connection with QB JJ McCarthy in Week 1 vs. Western Michigan, the Wolverines have stuffed just about every category available on the stat sheets and look like they’ll continue to do so until further notice.
While the numbers don’t exactly show it, Michigan has actually been relatively disciplined this season. Yes, there have been penalties, but UM played a nearly perfect first half vs. NIU before getting dinged with 4 penalties late in the second quarter. There was another one assessed in the second half.
Michigan had 6 penalties for 60 yards against Washington, including the 15-yard personal foul on WR Cornelius Johnson, but all but 2 were false start penalties.
Against WMU, the Wolverines had 5 penalties for 48 yards, with 15 yards due to a personal foul on junior OL Karsen Barnhart in the fourth quarter. But the rest were minor infractions, such as an off-sides or bad PI call on WR Ronnie Bell.
The Wolverines haven’t committed any major mistakes that have led to blown leads or otherwise disastrous consequences through the first 3 games. However, the penalties and miscues will have to be corrected down the road, as little mistakes can lead to major problems against Big Ten competition.
According to Team Rankings, Michigan is No. 50 overall, in terms of penalty yards per game. So UM isn’t exactly disciplined, but it’s not unruly and wild, either.
As mentioned before, the confidence and leadership at UM has been a major factor for success so far. On top of those traits, the Wolverines have also demonstrated a more noticeable field presences. They’ve already forced at least 2 delay of game penalties — one was the first play vs. WMU in Week 1 — because of their imposing aura and raucous support from 107,000-plus in the stadium bleachers.
Noise from the fans, chests puffed out on defense, big play flexing on offense — attach those to the smiles on the sidelines, the fist-bumps and overall energy from the players, and Michigan has an undeniable presence on the field.
The Wolverines won’t always have the help of the crowd, or the luxury of opening the season with 4 straight home games, but it’s clear that they’re developing a different type of chemistry when compared to what was present in 2020 and 2019, and probably even 2018 for that matter.