Michigan football: Memorable moments from the 2021 regular season
Miami Gardens, Fla.— Way back in July during Big Ten Media Days, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh laid out the approach to the upcoming season.
Harbaugh, 58, entered his seventh season coming off a brutal 2-4 season. He made big changes, first, firing defensive coordinator Don Brown just more than a year ago, then, with one year left on his contract, signed an extension that slashed his salary in half to $4 million, but laden with incentives. He then overhauled his staff, particularly on the defensive side, bringing in young, bright Mike Macdonald to coordinate the defense, while making changes on offense, including moving Sherrone Moore from tight ends to coaching the offensive line, hiring Mike Hart as running backs coach, replacing Jay Harbaugh, who moved to tight ends while still coordinating special teams.
The team seemed rejuvenated in spring practice by the younger staff, and Harbaugh seemed to feed off the changes.
“I’m here before you as enthusiastic and excited as I ever am,” Harbaugh said at media days. “To win the championship. To beat Ohio. (Win) our rivalry with Michigan State and (beat) everybody. That’s what we’re trying to do.
“And we’re going to do it — or die trying.”
More: Wojo: How Harbaugh and Wolverines worked their way to the biggest stage
Michigan went 12-1 this season, its one blemish a loss at Michigan State. The Wolverines earned an elusive win against Ohio State, won the Big Ten championship against Iowa and was ranked the No. 2 team in the College Football Playoff. That brought a date with No. 3 Georgia on New Year's Eve in the Orange Bowl national semifinal.
“The approach always from the beginning and each year, every day matters, and the games are the ones that count,” Harbaugh said this week. “We're going into our 14th game that counts. Our guys have done a tremendous job each day, making each day matter, and then when they get to the games, they've made those days count. They've been quite successful doing it.”
Here’s a look back at some of the memorable moments for the Wolverines:
Setting a tone early
In the aftermath of Michigan’s convincing season-opening 47-14 win over Western Michigan, senior co-captain Aidan Hutchinson said that while the Wolverines had done some good things, no one was content. “We haven’t done a damn thing,” Hutchinson said at the time. “We’re all moved on, we’re ready for Washington. We’re ready for the upcoming games. We’re not content with this at all.” Variations of that theme were prevalent during the season, a way to maintain focus and not allow anyone to drift.
Offensive identities can take some time to develop, but Michigan entered the season already knowing what it wanted to be — a physical, run-first team. That was evident from the start, as Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, known as "Thunder and Lightning," took over. Michigan rushed for 335 yards and three touchdowns in the opener and then 343 yards and four touchdowns against Washington and against overmatched Northern Illinois, the Wolverines had 373 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Michigan has been defined by its physical run approach and now ranks No. 10 nationally in rushing with Haskins a 1,000-yard rusher with a program-record single season 20 rushing touchdowns and Corum, who missed three games with an ankle injury, on the cusp of a 1,000-yard season.
The start of the fourth quarter at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium is about the playing of “Jump Around” as the Badgers’ fans start jumping in one of the most electric stadium statements. But this time, the Michigan players also started jumping and dancing on their sideline, participating in the frenzied moment. “That was going to be our juice,” Michigan safety Dax Hill said at the time. “We were going to steal their juice.” The Wolverines went on to win, 38-17, improving to 5-0. The Wolverines also celebrated on the sideline at Nebraska during the stadium’s AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” moment under the lights.
Licking their wounds
Michigan traveled to Michigan State on Oct. 30 with both teams at 7-0, ranked in the nation’s top-10 and set for a heavyweight battle. The Spartans had a 37-33 comeback victory powered by Kenneth Walker III’s five rushing touchdowns, but in the loss, Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara, who had been knocked for the lack of a consistent passing attack the previous seven games, had his best performance. The Wolverines finished with 406 passing yards. The loss forced the Michigan players to hit the reset button. They had a player’s only meeting that set their approach for the final four regular-season games and some players point to that as a pivotal moment this season, proving they wouldn’t fold. “We didn’t let that game define us,” safety Brad Hawkins said. “We continued to push. We continued to move on as a unit.”
Late in the game at Penn State, Michigan saw its lead evaporate and a strip sack of Cade McNamara appeared to be a game-changer. But the U-M defense held Penn State to a field goal with 5:55 left as the Nittany Lions took a 17-14 lead. In previous seasons, this might have been the time when Michigan would crumble, but McNamara rebounded after the turnover the previous series and led a game-winning drive with tight end Erick All, playing on a bum ankle, ran 47 yards for the touchdown in the 21-17 triumph.
Snapping the streak
They had been building toward this moment since those media days back in July. The focus had always been on Ohio State. On a cold, snowy day at Michigan Stadium in the regular-season finale, the Buckeyes arrived having won eight straight against the Wolverines while dominating the last two decades of the rivalry. It was the best game of the season for Michigan’s offensive line, which gave the running backs plenty of opportunities. Haskins turned them into a five-touchdown performance and a 42-27 win. On the defensive side, Hutchinson recorded three sacks to set the program-single season record with 13 (he added another sack against Iowa in the Big Ten championship), to help the Wolverines slow Ohio State’s top-ranked offense. A 42-3 rout of Iowa followed in the Big Ten title game.
Now the playoff
The Wolverines have been on the cusp of being relevant in the national playoff discussion a couple times under Harbaugh, only to have Ohio State snuff out those hopes. They’re here now, and while the players discuss different moments during the season that seemed pivotal to them in terms of reaching this point, it mostly has been about being singularly focused and embracing the old one-game-at-a-time cliché. “I think us not looking ahead and us having a solid mindset has led us to this spot,” McNamara said.