Lessons learned and focus thinned, Michigan not taking return to the College Football Playoff for granted

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Michigan is known for its repetition. Decades have been spent — and countless opponents have been ground into the turf — as the program sometimes chases, sometimes perpetuates Bo Schembechler’s bully ball mentality.

That’s why Jim Harbaugh was hired — to resuscitate Bo’s legacy one between-the-tackles run at a time. So, why would you expect anything less from Michigan’s Tuesday practice? There is a segment of it called “Beat Ohio” — a dissed reference to the program’s biggest rival intentionally leaving out the “State” part.

Without getting too deep into the details, the practice period involves each side of the ball loading up with jumbo packages and butting heads. Over and over and over. Repetition. Bully ball.

“No throws, all inside runs. All hitting,” edge rusher Mike Morris said during media day at the Fiesta Bowl semifinal. “Strap up your helmet and hit somebody in the mouth.”

Boil down the essence of Michigan’s season, and those Tuesday practices were not only worth it — they worked. Michigan rolled over Ohio State by a 28-3 margin in the second half to sew up a 45-23 win that had Bo smiling somewhere.

If not for that, we’re not chronicling the Wolverines’ return to the College Football Playoff, a second consecutive Big Ten championship, and perhaps still most importantly, a second straight win over Ohio State for the first time since 2000.

“It’s easy to move a guy where he doesn’t want to be when your team is doing it every single day,” Morris added. “… That’s why we call it ‘Beat Ohio,’ baby.”

Now, the goal is “Beat Everybody” and win a national championship. Not to forget the past but to build on it. Still staining the road to this moment is the distracted nature of Michigan’s effort in last year’s 34-11 trouncing by eventual national champion Georgia.

There has been widespread admission within the program that Michigan was just happy to be there against Georgia. Some form of that satisfaction was articulated continuously in interviews this week with Wolverines staff and players.

Sophomore linebacker Junior Colson: “Last year we were all happy to be there, happy we won the Big Ten. … We probably weren’t prepared all the way for Georgia. I just want to get a rematch.”

Student assistant JD Johnson: “I wouldn’t say last year took us by surprise, but it was kind of surreal. We were all like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ Now we all know what this entails. We’re all ready to do business.”

Senior defensive back Mike Sainristil: “It was like a relief feeling. We beat Ohio State. We won the Big Ten championship. It was like, ‘All right, we’re done.’ You live and learn.”

Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter: “Maybe we were, mentality-wise, really happy to be there. The approach all year has been, ‘Let’s take this as far as we can.'”

Predictably, Harbaugh didn’t bite when asked the happy-to-be-there question.

“I don’t ever really like to get into comparing anything,” he said. “As soon as you start comparing something, somebody or something gets diminished.”

Get the connection? This playoff repeat for the Wolverines was built on repetition. Bo’s version. Those Tuesday practices were necessary in getting back to the CFP.

“Anything, the second time around, you’re going to be more prepared,” quarterback JJ McCarthy said.

He should know. Backing up Cade McNamara in that turnaround 2021 season, McCarthy was limited to a few series a game. Still, he saw enough as a freshman.

“That was our goal last year: to beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten championship,” McCarthy said. “When you set goals like that and you accomplish them, there is a sense of like you already ate and you’re a little bit full.

“This year, we’re starving.”

Co-offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore had his own version of a repeat. His offensive line won the Joe Moore Award for the second straight year. That’s good news for anyone who would have had to move the trophy out of Michigan’s offices. The award — depicting five offensive linemen — weighs more than 350 pounds. (Basically, the size of your average offensive tackle.)

“You can’t move it. You have to take it apart if you’re going to move it,” Moore said of the award. “We would have known if we weren’t going to win it again.”

The fact that they have further narrows the focus of this game. It is that physicality that No. 2 Michigan is bringing against the finesse of No. 3 TCU. The Horned Frogs’ approach has dominated college football for at least the last 15 years. The Wolverines’ approach is why Harbaugh was brought in eight years ago to reconnect the program to Schembechler’s foundational structure.

“You don’t win championships getting gashed up the middle,” said Mazi Smith, Michigan’s all-Big Ten defensive tackle. “If the middle is weak, it’s hard to [win like] that.”

And Michigan is definitely strong up the middle. Center Olu Oluwatimi won both the Rimington (best center) and Outland (best interior lineman) trophies. McCarthy had a breakthrough season. Donovan Edwards, nursing a broken hand, has rushed for 400 yards combined over the past two games.

They have all bought into what Michigan used to be, what it lost and what it has now regained.

“Being a lineman, you always want to be the bully and choke people out,” Oluwatimi said.

As an interior lineman, Smith is a rarity. A game-changer in the middle at 337 pounds. Smith and fellow defensive lineman Kris Jenkins have combined for as many tackles from the middle as team leader, linebacker Junior Colson (95). That is unheard of for a player at his position on most teams.

“The longer we fight, the stronger I get,” Smith said.

Joe Gillespie might need an ID to get into State Farm Stadium. Gillespie is the 51-year-old defensive coordinator for a program that is known for its offensive exploits. Like TCU program architect Gary Patterson, Gillespie — in his first season since moving from Tulsa — uses the 3-3-5 “Stack” defense. Unlike Patterson’s Stack made famous at TCU, Gillespie’s is a work in progress.

If TCU won the national championship, it would do so with the worst defense since teams began being ranked in 1936 — and it wouldn’t even be close. The Frogs are 74th nationally in total defense giving up 385 yards per game.

“We certainly think we have a physical football team,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes said. “In a lot of ways, people look at the Big 12 and look at the history of the league and all the scoring and lack of defense and assume that’s the way the league still is. It’s not.”

Noble thoughts. Colson was then asked what concerns him most about TCU.

“Nothing,” he said. “We’re ready and prepared.”

Saturday’s matchup is begging one ultimate question: Who better prepared himself for his first CFP: 2021 Michigan or 2022 TCU?

Morris may not have the answer, but he has seen the truth. He has been there — at both the CFP and in the trenches seeing the look in opponents’ eyes — when the bully ball gets rolling.

“It’s like the world is caving in and your dreams aren’t becoming reality and you fold,” he said.

Again and again and again.

Leave a Comment