Can Michigan win it all? These are the five reasons it can

Sports

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The mood inside Michigan’s Crisler Center media room late Saturday afternoon was equally reflective and forward-looking.

Michigan had beaten rival Ohio State and won the Big Ten East. The division title didn’t come as a surprise, given the strong roster the Wolverines returned in 2023, but it continued a historic season. This was the first time Michigan had beaten its rival three straight times since 1997, the program’s last national championship season.

As the Wolverines return to the Big Ten championship game for the third consecutive year, they have national championship aspirations again.

Safety Rod Moore‘s diving interception of an underthrown pass by Ohio State’s Kyle McCord secured Michigan’s 30-24 win Saturday and ensured a return to Indianapolis. But the twists and turns of Michigan’s journey have made this season stand apart from the school’s past two championship runs.

“It’s been a lot,” quarterback J.J. McCarthy said.

Michigan won six of its 12 games without coach Jim Harbaugh on the sideline because of two separate suspensions. The program has been under intense scrutiny since mid-October, when the NCAA began investigating an off-campus scouting/signal-stealing operation led by former staff member Connor Stalions. There have also been standard obstacles, like injuries to key starters — guard Zak Zinter, cornerback Will Johnson — in the Ohio State game. But whether self-created or not, Michigan found ways to navigate whatever obstacles fell in its path, reaching 1,001 all-time wins.

“No one cried, no one whined,” running back Blake Corum said. “It was like, ‘OK, this is what we have to do.’ The job has to get done, no matter what.”

And there’s still work left to do as Michigan faces No. 17 Iowa this coming Saturday. A win would give the Wolverines three straight outright Big Ten championships for the first time in team history.

“It’s been a tremendous season, right in the exact position that we hoped for, that we worked so hard to be in,” Harbaugh said Sunday. “It’s onward now. We’ve accomplished many of our goals, but not all of them yet.”

Here are five factors that helped Michigan complete its journey back to Indianapolis and could help the Wolverines finally win an elusive national title.


1. A veteran-laden roster that doesn’t flinch, starting with QB McCarthy

The experience of this Michigan team has been especially important given Harbaugh’s suspension and the intense media scrutiny on the program. Almost every position group boasts numerous players with significant starts or notable field time. Even after a devastating injury like Zinter’s against Ohio State, Michigan responded by moving fifth-year lineman Karsen Barnhart to right guard and then sliding in Trente Jones, another fifth-year player, to Barnhart’s spot at tackle. The offense continued to move.

“We’re always talking about the six best guys, the five best guys, whoever it is,” said Sherrone Moore, who oversees the line.

McCarthy’s savvy has stood out this season as Michigan has asked different things of him than in 2022, when the team rode running backs Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. After an excellent start — he had 2,134 pass yards with 18 touchdowns on 75.7% completions through Michigan’s first nine games — he didn’t attempt a pass down the stretch against Penn State, as the Wolverines called 32 consecutive runs. Then, after a shaky performance last week at Maryland, McCarthy executed a precision passing game to near perfection against Ohio State, completing 16 of 20 attempts for 148 yards and a thread-the-needle touchdown to Roman Wilson. He completed 12 of 12 passes of 5 yards or less, and recorded his fifth game with at least 80% completions, tying Oregon’s Bo Nix for most in the FBS. His mobility also stood out against a fast Buckeyes defense.

“I told him before the game: ‘Listen, when the game matters in some critical situations, I’m going to put the ball in your hands, because I know you’re going to make a great decision,'” Moore said. “I know where his mindset is at, especially on those critical downs.”


2. Moore’s growth as a coach

Harbaugh has generally hired good staff members at Michigan. Several of his ex-assistants have moved on to head-coaching positions or to the NFL. His 2023 staff projected well, especially with two up-and-coming coordinators in Jesse Minter, a Broyles Award finalist in 2022, and Moore. Back in late spring, Michigan had no idea how much of the season Harbaugh would miss and how much it would have to rely on the rest of the coaching staff in his absence.

Although the 37-year-old Moore has never been a head coach and only became a coordinator in 2021, he was the clear choice to lead Michigan on game days during the stretch run. Moore took a necessary conservative approach in an emotionally charged game against Penn State, which has an aggressive defense filled with NFL-level talent, but an offense that was not set up to truly challenge Michigan. He got Michigan through a shaky performance against Maryland, in which the Wolverines needed scores in all three phases to overcome the Terrapins.

Before the Ohio State game, Harbaugh had two messages for Moore: Love you and be you. The latter meant: make more aggressive play calls. Moore kept the offense on the field for three fourth-down opportunities and converted each time, including twice on a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that put Michigan up 14-3 in the second quarter. He also opened the fourth quarter with a halfback pass, as Edwards found tight end Colston Loveland for 34 yards, and mixed in Alex Orji as a “change-up” quarterback and got a 20-yard run.

“Coach Moore said from the get-go that he’s going to call the most aggressive game he’s ever called,” McCarthy said. “For the big boys, for Blake, for myself, it’s music to our ears, just knowing that he has confidence in us to go get that extra yard or go get that 2 yards. It means the world because that’s who we are.”

Harbaugh said Ohio State’s defense was the best he had seen, and Michigan’s game plan required creativity.

“Not a thing I would have changed in the way he called that game and the decisions he made in that kind of environment, that kind of pressure,” Harbaugh said.

Moore’s 3-0 Big Ten stretch without Harbaugh showed that he’s ready to lead his own program. Given the uncertainty about Harbaugh’s future — Harbaugh has interviewed for NFL jobs each of the past two winters, and likely will face another NCAA suspension if he returns to Michigan in 2024 — Moore has emerged as a very capable option to take over at Michigan, whenever that day comes.


3. A defensive front with few stars but plenty of depth

When Michigan broke through in 2021, winning its first Big Ten title in 17 years, its frontman was defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. He shined down the stretch, becoming the Heisman Trophy runner-up and cementing himself as a top NFL draft pick. And Michigan has had plenty of other star defensive linemen during Harbaugh’s tenure — David Ojabo, Kwity Paye, Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, Taco Charlton, Mazi Smith and Mike Morris.

The 2023 line might not be remembered for its big names, but it will be remembered for its depth, skill, experience and performances in big games. No Michigan defensive lineman has more than 5.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss or five quarterback hurries, but eight have at least 1.5 sacks and seven have multiple QB hurries.

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There have been expected contributions from veterans such as tackle Kris Jenkins and end Jaylen Harrell, but sophomore Mason Graham has emerged into a surprise star — he’s tied for the team lead with 6.5 tackles for loss and has contributed three sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The California native was an ESPN three-star recruit who originally committed to Boise State. And Josaiah Stewart, a Coastal Carolina transfer, has been a valuable addition on the edge.

Kenneth Grant, a 339-pound sophomore, has contributed 2.5 sacks, 5 quarterback hurries and 4 pass breakups, and drew national attention when he raced down Penn State running back Kaytron Allen, saving a possible touchdown and wowing Harbaugh and his teammates.

“We get ourselves just ready for the moment, and when that moment comes, we know what we’re going to do,” Graham said. “That’s a big part of our team in handling adversity.”


4. Those who stayed have positioned Michigan for more championships

The famous Bo Schembechler line that appears everywhere around Michigan’s program — “Those who stay will be champions” — has taken on new and added meaning. Michigan had several players pass up potential NFL opportunities to return for another run at a Big Ten title and the CFP. The “One More Year” fund, started by the Champions Circle NIL collective, helped the program retain standouts such as Corum, Zinter, Jenkins, offensive lineman Trevor Keegan and wide receiver Cornelius Johnson. Michigan also brought back other accomplished players, such as defensive back Mike Sainristil and linebacker Michael Barrett. The Wolverines had only three underclassmen enter the NFL draft — Smith, Morris and cornerback D.J. Turner.

All of Michigan’s returnees have made significant contributions this fall. Sainristil is an All-America candidate, recording five interceptions and five pass breakups, while Barrett leads the team in both forced fumbles (three) and fumble recoveries (two). Johnson recorded his third consecutive season of 32 or more receptions. Zinter and Keegan have anchored a line for a remarkably balanced offense that averages 37.6 points per game.

Although Corum’s overall rushing production (976 yards) doesn’t match what he did last season (1,463), he has gained the most critical yards, setting a Michigan single-season record with 22 rushing touchdowns.

“I just look back and pray that I left a legacy, I stamped my mark here, I made a difference, on and off the field,” Corum said. “Looking back at [the Ohio State game], this is why I came back. I couldn’t go out in the Big House like I did last year, hurt. I’m so appreciative for the University of Michigan.”


5. Special teams remain solid

Michigan didn’t enter the season with many glaring concerns, but special teams carried some question marks after kicker Jake Moody and punter Brad Robbins both were selected in the NFL draft. The Wolverines became only the second team in the past 40 years to have two specialists picked in the same draft. Moody, the 2021 Lou Groza Award winner and Michigan’s career scoring leader, seemed to be a particularly big loss.

But the Wolverines have continued to shine in the kicking game. On Saturday against Ohio State, James Turner went 3-for-3 on field goals, including a 50-yarder early in the third quarter, while Ohio State’s Jayden Fielding missed from 52 yards out to end the first half. Tommy Doman averaged 63.3 yards per punt, placing one at the Ohio State 2-yard line late in the opening half.

“He was money,” Corum said of Turner. “He was calm, cool and collected, hit all of them. Couldn’t ask for a better kicker than my guy, so jolly good fellow to him.”

Turner, a Louisville transfer, is 12-for-14 on field goal attempts this season and 8-for-8 from within 40 yards. Doman averaged 45 yards per punt with 18 fair catches and 14 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Although Michigan isn’t exceptional on returns, Jake Thaw and Tyler Morris have been a solid tandem on punt runbacks, and the coverage teams haven’t had any busts. The Wolverines’ special teams play shined at Maryland, as they blocked a punt for a safety and downed a Doman punt inside the Terrapins’ 1-yard line, leading to another late safety.

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