MADISON — On Tuesday, Mazi Smith stood beside Schembechler Hall and grinned in anticipation of the Michigan football team’s pending trip to Wisconsin.
“Going into somebody else’s place and trying to take it from them… it shows you who you really are,” the junior defensive tackle said.
Early in the fourth quarter on Saturday, when junior receiver Cornelius Johnson executed a toe-tap touchdown catch in the corner of the endzone, posing in front of an abandoned student section, who they are was abundantly clear. The 5-0 Wolverines, fresh off a 38-17 thrashing of the Badgers, are a legitimate contender.
In essence, they are who they thought they were — it’s just a version of themselves that few others envisioned.
“These last few years, we’ve done enough flinching,” junior defensive back Dax Hill said after the game. “We didn’t want to feel that way anymore.”
For the past six months, Michigan has spoken ad nauseum about its culture change, rattling off platitudes about a revamped locker room and the benefits of a young coaching staff. From an outsider’s perspective, those buzzword-ladened refrains tend to sound artificial. Without any tangible on-field success, they would ring hollow.
Through five games, the Wolverines have made good on their word.
“We’ve taken control of this year and I think we made the changes that we wanted,” junior quarterback Cade McNamara said. “We know that’s not gonna be easy to be different, but so far what you’re seeing right now is just a reflection of everything that we’ve preached, everything we tried to make a difference for in the offseason.”
Camp Randall Stadium has been a house of horrors for Michigan for the better part of this century. Before Saturday, the Wolverineswere winless in Madison since 2001. Often, the trip to Wisconsin has induced a sobering reality, rendering any sort of early season success a facade.
This go-around had the opposite effect, solidifying Michigan’s undefeated record. The Wolverines both exorcised demons from past visits and backed up their season-long conviction.
McNamara spent the majority of September insisting that he was capable of leading Michigan’s offense through the passing game. The fact that he beat out 5-star freshman J.J. McCarthy without a competition and steered the Wolverines to a 4-0 start did little to stave off critics.
And yet on Saturday, playing in front of fans on the road for the first time in his collegiate career, McNamara threw for 197 yards and two touchdowns while Michigan’s potent rushing attack managed just 112 yards on 44 carries. McNamara had his fair share of hiccups, but he showed poise under pressure, made throws on the run and executed on a number of critical third and fourth down conversions.
The defensive line, which seems to be perpetually gashed by Wisconsin’s run game, wreaked havoc in the backfield, creating continuous pressure and allowing just 43 rushing yards. You wouldn’t be faulted for doing a double-take as Michigan players shedded blocks and flew around the edge with ease, demoralizing the Badgers’ typically dominant offensive line.
“A lot of our players, it’s a pretty young team,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s almost like some of those X-Men movies where the little kid, the teenage X-Men find the power. Now they know they have it, and they’re using it. It’s really exciting to watch as a coach.”
This sort of growth and improvement from last season’s disastrous 2-4 campaign wasn’t supposed to happen this quickly. Sure, Wisconsin and Washington, who stand as the Wolverines’ two marquee victories on the season, are programs seemingly marred in down years. But Michigan entered this season in the same boat, with question marks up and down the roster and expectations on the floor.
From the very first possession, Michigan played with a sense of urgency, representative of a team conscious of the game’s importance. The Wolverines twice went for it on fourth down in their own half of the field. In total, they converted four out of five fourth down attempts, including a one-yard touchdown run from McCarthy.
“It’s a statement, a statement play,” sophomore receiver Roman Wilson said of the fourth down aggression. “We want to win and we’re not gonna back down.”
The game featured everything that Michigan fans have spent the last few weeks clamoring for. There was a more ordinary run-pass balance, with 30 passing attempts compared to 44 carries; a blend of creativity, with a series of end-arounds to sophomore receiver A.J. Henning and even a 34-yard flea-flicker touchdown to Johnson; and even semi-regular appearances from McCarthy, whose speed adds an intriguing layer to the offense.
That’s not to say the win was perfect, but no game is going to be flawless. Michigan proved it can win in spite of its shortcomings, a trait of resiliency absent from last year’s group and one that Harbaugh said he felt when he arrived at the stadium Saturday morning.
“A vibe that they weren’t gonna be denied,” Harbaugh said.
The prevailing image of Saturday’s demolition occurred in between the third and fourth quarter, when “Jump Around,” Wisconsin’s adopted anthem, blared through the stadium. The Michigan sideline, players and coaches alike, spilled onto the field, thrusting their arms into the air and waving towels. Across the way, Wisconsin, trailing 20-10, stood stoic.
It’s a scene that seemed inconceivable just a few weeks ago. And yet, in spite of the celebration, the Wolverines continue to maintain the mentality that has carried them this far.
“We have big goals,” junior edge rusher David Ojabo said. “You can’t come in all complacent. It’s just day-by-day, week-by-week. Can’t be high-fiving each other thinking we won a championship. We haven’t done anything yet.”
In that context, they haven’t. But they have proven to be a bona fide contender in the Big Ten, something few would have thought a month back — except for the Wolverines themselves.