Wolverines embrace 'tenacious' identity
Ann Arbor — Determining a team's identity can take time, particularly with a new coach and staff. But nine games into this football season, the Michigan players know who they are as a team.
The Wolverines (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) are ranked 15th in the latest AP top 25 poll and are coming off a 49-16 victory at home against Rutgers before 109,879. They have back-to-back road games, beginning Saturday against Indiana, before finishing the regular season against Ohio State.
Clearly, the Michigan defense is the tone-setter and is ranked in the top three nationally in several defensive statistical categories. The Wolverines showed how potent their offense can be when running efficiently and without turnovers against Rutgers, which was of even more significant considering the hiccup in special teams that allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown and a huge punt return.
And the identity of this team that has a chance to play for the Big Ten East Division title against Ohio State if the Wolverines win their next two and Ohio State remains unbeaten?
"We like to leave it at we're a group of guys who are hungry and tenacious, and we're going to fight for everything each and every play and each and every down," said safety Jabrill Peppers, who scored on a spectacular 18-yard run in the second quarter against Rutgers. "I like to think our identity is a group of hungry guys who are going to go out and fight to the last whistle."
In that sense, they have taken on the identity of their coach, Jim Harbaugh.
The Wolverines were ahead 35-16 at halftime after allowing a field goal with no time left and on their first possession of the second half, drove 60 yards on two plays for a touchdown. Harbaugh opted to go for the two-point conversion, which quarterback Jake Rudock ran in.
"It's never over till it's over," Harbaugh said after the game. "You've got to finish and play with great resolve in that area, that's what they're trained to do. All the way back to Bo Schembechler, that's what you're taught as a Michigan player.
"Play as fast as you can, as hard as you can, as long as you can. That's what our guys did."
That is his approach, and it has been absorbed by his players.
"It just rubs off on you eventually," senior safety Jarrod Wilson said. "He wants to win, basically at any cost. He's the head coach and I'm always going to ride with him. I love the hard-nosed physical (approach) and all of that energy that he brings."
Maybe it's the proverbial killer instinct, which seemingly had been lacking in the program. The Wolverines were 5-7 last season, and at the midpoint of the season teetered downward, failing to finish games and the season.
A coaching change was made, and the expectation was that Harbaugh would return toughness to a team that had become — by most accounts — soft.
So when Harbaugh had a chance to go for two — because, he said, his chart said so — he did because a team that had been outscored 97-17 the previous two games just might rally.
Cornerback Jourdan Lewis said that is the mentality.
"Finish. We've got to finish the game," Lewis said. "Don't give up. That's how comebacks happen."
After the Minnesota game the week before in which the proud Michigan defense allowed 461 yards, including 317 passing, the Michigan defensive backs got an earful.
"We didn't execute," Lewis said. "It was probably one of our worst games and coaches were on us. When the secondary's getting lit up, you always have to take it personally."
The Wolverines responded by holding Rutgers, which didn't complete a pass until there were seven minutes remaining in the first half, to 97 yards passing.
With three games remaining, Rudock, the graduate transfer from Iowa, also has to be feeling like he finally has established chemistry. A week after taking a hard hit and being knocked out of the game at Minnesota, Rudock threw for a career-high 337 yards.
Rudock threw touchdown passes to Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and ran four yards for a touchdown, not to mention the two-point conversion.
"He was on fire," Harbaugh said. "He had a great game, making all the appropriate throws, all the right reads. Accurate and appropriate all day long. A windy and blustery day, too. He played great with his feet.
"I don't know how he got in that second touchdown. That looked like a play that would be sacked in the backfield and even when he got on the perimeter on the edge, had a great look at it, (and) didn't think there was any way. Just a heck of an individual play on that one."
Rudock had bruising to his ribs and torso from the hit at Minnesota, but he pushed through practices during the week and said the coaches "understood how much to rep me and rest me."
"I knew I was going to give everything I had to be able to go," Rudock said. "That was something that wasn't a question in my mind."
On that four-yard run, Rudock made a diving play for the pylon to give the Wolverines a 14-3 lead.
"Jake's a very tough guy, as tough as a $2 steak and continues to show that," Harbaugh said. "That's a courage play, too. I've been in that situation.
"When he makes that turn up the boundary, you know they're coming, everybody is coming and they're coming for that spot at the pylon. He knew it, guarantee he knew it, and he stuck his nose in there. Toughness is respected by everybody who plays this game. He's got it."