Wojo: Wolverines are on a no-mercy mission
Ann Arbor — Michigan isn’t hiding or disguising anything now. Its intentions are brutally, purposefully clear.
The Wolverines are on a no-mercy mission, and they’re happy to hammer the point. Nothing fancy, nothing fake, they’re coming after it. On offense, they’re going to ram the ball right at the opponent until it wears down. On defense, they’re going to attack the quarterback until he taps out.
They’ve dubbed it a revenge tour but it’s grown into something more than that. Penn State was next on the list and the fifth-ranked Wolverines were ruthless, rolling to a 42-7 victory Saturday. Vengeance isn’t necessarily the goal, but the means to achieve long-elusive goals, like a Big Ten championship and a spot in the playoff.
As Michigan keeps stacking punishing victories, we can point out the Big Ten’s flaws, sure. But it’s also time to acknowledge this is becoming a complete team full of confidence, capable of dominance. With that absolutely smothering defense, anything is possible.
“That was really impressive, start to finish, all sides of the ball,” Jim Harbaugh said. “That was a really impressive Michigan football team out there. I’m really proud of them. Put an exclamation point on how proud I am!”
This is what a Harbaugh team is supposed to look like, a mix of hunger and anger, wrapped with talent. It was all on display Saturday, as Karan Higdon ran for 132 yards (his seventh straight 100-plus effort), and the defense harassed a hobbled Trace McSorley into complete ineffectiveness until he was pulled. The Nittany Lions (6-3) came in ranked 14th and averaging 459.5 yards per game. They were held to 186 total yards, and the Wolverines (8-1) relished every minute of it.
Well, not exactly every minute. Penn State finally scored with 1:59 remaining, and Michigan’s top-rated defense was miffed by it. On the drive, Harbaugh even called a timeout before a fourth-down conversion, then challenged the ruling of a reception, while clinging to a 42-0 lead.
All this motivation was forged by the disappointment of last season, when the Wolverines lost to Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State. To them, each was galling in its own way. The 42-13 humbling in Happy Valley was particularly galling, as the Nittany Lions ran the ball to the final second, instead of running out the clock, attempting to tack on one more touchdown.
The Wolverines took it personally, and defensive coordinator Don Brown reminded them during the bye last week, showing clips of last year’s ending.
“That’s why we wanted (the shutout) really badly,” said Josh Uche, who collected two of Michigan’s five sacks. “That’s the goal every game, but this game meant more just because coach (James) Franklin and his offensive coordinator were laughing last year while they were trying to run up the score. They embarrassed us.”
So vengeance felt pretty sweet?
“It’s not sweet until we get a championship,” Uche said, shaking his head, not smiling.
The Wolverines have won eight straight, lead the Big Ten East and are fifth in the playoff rankings and about to go higher. Three regular-season games remain — Rutgers, Indiana and Ohio State, and the Buckeyes look extremely vulnerable, barely beating Nebraska 36-31 Saturday.
Remember when Michigan’s offensive line was going to be its undoing? It’s becoming a strength, and Higdon has become a star. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten in time of possession (seventh in the nation), a Harbaugh hallmark. Shea Patterson stabilized the quarterback position and keeps running for huge third-down conversions, and look out, Michigan is even getting healthy.
Receiver Tarik Black, who broke a foot in training camp, returned and caught a 41-yard touchdown pass that was nullified by penalty. Defensive end Rashan Gary returned after missing three games with a shoulder injury, fortifying Michigan’s already deep defense. Backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey went down with a broken collarbone, which was the only thing that dampened Harbaugh’s mood after the game.
There was a buzz in the Big House for this one, and Harbaugh sounded like a proud father talking about it.
“Our stadium, our fans, they had a different feel tonight,” Harbaugh said. “It was like the old days, just an energized group of fans, the way it’s supposed to be, the way I remember it, at the very highest level. It gives me chills. And I think our team responded.”
They responded to all sorts of stimuli, from their rising ranking to the rise they still get from last season’s failures. In Michigan’s mind, Penn State had this coming, and the Wolverines hammered out retribution. They did it while displaying a salty edge. It starts with Harbaugh, who has no problem agitating opposing coaches or teams. You see it now in the attitude of the players, as several mimicked McSorley’s celebratory home run swing after big plays.
In the middle of it, as he often is, was Chase Winovich, who coined the Revenge Tour and is backing it up with spectacular play.
“Trace has definitely earned my respect, but you get in that game mode, and in my mind, it’s almost like all bets are off,” Winovich said. “It’s fine if you want to laugh at running the score up and having a jolly old time. It’s fair game, it’s football. At the same time, I’m not gonna get mad, and you can’t get mad when stuff like that happens back at you. … They bullied us last year and we wanted our lunch money back, and we wanted them to pay interest.”
Oh, they paid. And with this Michigan team, the interest grows with every pound up the middle, every pound of an opposing quarterback, every pound of vengeance.