At halftime, No. 10 Penn State was taking the fight to the No. 5 Michigan football team. Literally.
Things got chippy in the tunnel, with both teams shoving and engaging in the skirmish. What had transpired on the field in the previous 30 minutes didn’t fit that narrative. The Wolverines handled the Nittany Lions for the most part, outgaining them heavily in yardage and, astonishingly, holding them to just one first down despite only leading 16-14.
But standing in the tunnel, Penn State — whether warranted or not — was confident.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, were simply unbothered.
“They didn’t talk on the field,” senior defensive end Mike Morris said. “So they wanted to talk at halftime because they got lucky.”
That attitude, the nonchalance with which Michigan treated the Nittany Lions at halftime, was exemplified by its dominance on the field.
The narratives surrounding the Wolverines entering their Top-10 matchup were pertinent: Could they move the ball against Penn State’s top-five ranked run defense? What would the defense that had struggled against lesser Big Ten competition look like? And, of course, how would Michigan handle its first “real” test?
The Wolverines passed with flying colors.
They throttled Penn State from the opening kickoff to the final whistle. They marched right over the Nittany Lions’ run defense to the tune of 418 rushing yards, they stymied Penn State’s pair of talented running backs to 35 yards combined and they never punted.
The game was close in the first half because Michigan found itself settling for field goals instead of touchdowns. It was in a battle not with its opponent, but its own ineptitude. The Wolverines looked at the first half and didn’t see themselves in a dogfight.
In their eyes, they just weren’t playing to their standard.
“We knew that we beat ourselves,” graduate center Olusegun Oluwatimi said. “… So going into the locker room at halftime. Our spirits were up, we were ready to go back out … We felt like we were dominating on both sides of the ball and even in special teams, so we just (had) to keep doing us.”
Even with a 6-0 start, college football pundits criticized Michigan at every turn. Its weak non-conference schedule meant nothing could be gleaned from its blowout wins. Next, Maryland was able to move the ball against the Wolverines, raising further red flags. Then, they didn’t play four dominant quarters against Iowa or Indiana. More and more, questions swirled about their defense and whether a better opponent could exploit them.
Penn State was supposed to be the better opponent. And Michigan, instead, looked the most dominant it had in conference play all season.
“Take away three plays and the score is 41 to 3,” Morris said. “So we were not really worried about it.”
The Wolverines entered this game looking for respect. Despite all they accomplished last year, they’re still viewed as a team that’s begging for a seat at the big kids’ table.
But a resounding win in a top-10 matchup proves Michigan should have its spot firmly anchored in the college football’s hierarchy. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh went as far to call it a “statement game.”
There’s a laser focus to this year’s iteration of the Wolverines. The breaks in the game were going Penn State’s way — and it didn’t matter. They possess a confidence, built from the fact that they’ve seen what they can accomplish and have the belief that they can do it again.
Up until kickoff, it was unclear how Michigan would look against the Nittany Lions. But, as it moved the ball at will and seized control of the game in the second half, those narratives quickly shifted — shifted to a point where going 11-0 entering the matchup in Columbus suddenly looks realistic.
That’s a narrative that wasn’t floated with much confidence outside of Ann Arbor before Saturday. But inside the Wolverines’ locker room, a new belief about what they can accomplish this season has already been written.
Last year, the narrative was about resetting expectations.
This year, the expectation is to win, and Penn State was simply the first measuring stick.