Before the benches emptied and the blowout took shape, tension fermented inside Michigan Stadium. As the Wolverines’ offense jogged off the field after a fruitless opening drive against Western Michigan on Saturday, boos rained down onto the field.
Fans had just seen Michigan shoot itself in the foot yet again. This time, a timeout followed by a false start penalty just 40 seconds into the game led to a conservative, discombobulated series for the Wolverines’ offense. Last week, it was the offensive line’s litany of mistakes that allowed Michigan to score only one offensive touchdown at then-No. 12 Notre Dame.
The boo birds were hasty — patience has never been a hallmark of any college football fanbase. But they weren’t completely baseless.
Everyone has heard the Wolverines’ unseemly stats. A 9-9 record dating back to November of 2016. Zero wins in their last four games. Another loss to a rival.
“There was a feeling everyone wanted to get rid of (this week),” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
Much of that has been tied to Michigan’s offensive struggles, which were well summarized during its first five plays from scrimmage. The penalty, confusion and boos made that quite clear.
But what happened the rest of the game should inspire much needed confidence in the Wolverines. Michigan dominated with 49 points, 451 yards of total offense, a touchdown catch by wide receiver — something that hadn’t occurred in exactly 364 days — and then two more.
“There were a lot of questions about our offense, and I think we put a close to that today,” said senior running back Karan Higdon. “… I think it’s a great kickstart for us.”
So how did the Wolverines’ offense improve so much in one week? Well, the opponent certainly matters. The Broncos’ front seven is not close to as talented or physically dominant as that of Notre Dame.
But it also goes back to that emotion of losing — a pain that Harbaugh says hurts both his “mind and body.” You can bet he expects his players to feel the same way, and thus began a hyper-focused week of practice.
“Notre Dame punched us in the mouth because we were laughing and taking everything for granted,” said junior running back Chris Evans. “But this week we were a lot more focused.
“We’re not allowing all those smiles no more. We’re strictly business unless we’re outside the lines after practice.”
In his post-game press conference, Harbaugh also mentioned he noticed none of his players “flinching” or “asking to come out” during 90-plus degree practices on Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s all a cliché — “a good week of practice” is almost always coach-speak. Still, last week’s loss seems to have genuinely sparked the Wolverines, just as it should have.
“I just think the expectation we have for ourselves and then meeting something else with the loss to Notre Dame, it was a little different this time,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich. “We knew we had to get it out, and we knew this was the week.”
A win wasn’t all that was necessary, however. Michigan needed a dominant performance — something to temporarily reverse the negative narrative that’s justly surrounded the program’s recent performances. And for the first time in nearly two seasons, the Wolverines finally got their domineering rout.
“It feels good (to win like that),” Winovich said. “Coach Harbaugh used to say to us last year — he hasn’t said it in a while — ‘It doesn’t have to be close. You don’t have to keep people in the game, there’s no rule that says we have to.’ ”
Immense pressure is a reality at Michigan. Losing, even in season-openers on the road, only amplifies that burden. Some national pundits suggested last week was the beginning of the end for Harbaugh in Ann Arbor. Even University President Mark Schlissel, for the first time in his tenure, answered questions about the coach’s job security on Wednesday.
But on Saturday, the Wolverines quieted that noise and those boo birds by thrashing Western Michigan. Finally, Michigan can take its breath.
“Obviously, there are a lot of people talking about us — Michigan’s always a hot topic,” Higdon said. “I think we took that today and threw it back.”