A month ago, the Michigan football team approached the game against Wisconsin with everything to prove. It had five wins over meager foes. The resume-staining loss in South Bend on Sept. 1 remained etched into the fabric of the team.
But the Wolverines told everyone who would listen that they were ready for a three-game stretch that they knew would define their season. Three games with the Badgers, Michigan State and Penn State. Three ranked opponents. Put up or shut up.
Three games later, following a 42-7 romp over the Nittany Lions, no one is doubting anymore.
“From start to finish, all sides of the ball, that was a really impressive Michigan football team tonight,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “I’m really proud of them. Put an exclamation point on how proud I am.”
In those three matchups, Michigan outscored Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State by a margin of 101-27. It outgained those three opponents 1,242-462. It came away not only with three wins, but three distinct statements.
And now, it stands confidently as a top-five team in the nation, raising its ceiling by the week.
“As you go forward, your baseline changes — your expectations for yourself and your team,” said fifth-year senior Chase Winovich. “Had we played this game week one, it would’ve been the most joyous victory. But honestly, in the locker room we were happy about the way things went, but we’re honestly mad we gave up a touchdown.
“Your expectations change.”
Expectations. This program is no stranger to those. But Winovich wasn’t referring to external expectations, rather a team with growing self-confidence by the week.
Going into that stretch a month ago, two wins likely would have been a success. And it’s not just that they came away with all three, but how. From the scuffle in East Lansing to the mocking celebrations Saturday, the Wolverines are talking their share of talk, and then backing up every word of it.
“A couple weeks ago, when we first beat Wisconsin, I think the Revenge Tour, we kind of had a bandwagon there,” Winovich said. “I think we’re rolling through these last couple games and eventually into Columbus like a battleship. I think everyone’s trying to hop in or hop on.”
Of course, that growing belief stems from on-the-field success. Each week, Michigan has shown a new layer of improvement. Perhaps most notably, the offensive line has grown by leaps and bounds under offensive line coach Ed Warriner.
Against the Badgers, the Wolverines rushed for 320 yards. Against the Spartans’ top-ranked run defense, Michigan racked up 183 yards. Saturday against the Nittany Lions was more of the same, rushing for 259. This coming just months after the Wolverines could muster just 58 yards against Notre Dame.
Michigan has made this leap without much mystery either; the Wolverines have run the ball 133 times and thrown it 64 times over that span in a sign of a clear commitment to power football.
The pass protection has shown a similar ascent.
Saturday, Michigan didn’t give up a sack and allowed just two tackles-for-loss to Penn State — which came into the game leading the conference in both categories.
“We thought that was a really good defensive front — probably as good as Notre Dame’s,” Harbaugh said after the game. “And a team that really does a tremendous job at tackles for loss, I know they’re leading in that category. And we were able to stay away from negative plays, we were able to stay away from tackles for loss, we were able to stay away from the sacks.”
Now, barring a major upset at Rutgers or at home to Indiana, Michigan will have three weeks to prepare for its biggest game since the 2016 loss in Columbus. In all likelihood, it will decide the Big Ten East.
Winovich, for his part, likes the Wolverines’ chances.
“We’re the team to beat in the Big Ten,” he said. “That’s not a controversial statement, it’s just, I think that’s a fact at this point.”