There’s been no shortage of highlight-reel moments for the No. 9 Michigan football team this season.
In the few moments when they’ve needed a big play — and some when they haven’t — the Wolverines have found one, be it through a 34-yard flea flicker for a touchdown or an explosive end-around from sophomore receiver A.J. Henning. With the talent Michigan has, it’s had little trouble getting the production it needs in big moments.
But isolated plays don’t win football games. The Wolverines aren’t 5-0 because junior quarterback Cade McNamara made a few big throws — they’re 5-0 because they’ve played clean, consistent football the rest of the time.
“They really listen to the coaching,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters Monday. “They’ve really embraced it, and they do their best to execute it. They do that in practice, they do that in meetings, they do that in games — that’s what I’d attribute it to.”
That embrace of coaching isn’t an accident. Players and coaches alike have talked plenty about Harbaugh’s assistant coach hires in the offseason, and now, that younger staff is starting to yield results. It’s visible in the confidence the players have exuded since the beginning of fall camp, the energy they’ve emanated on the sideline and — most of all — the consistency they’ve shown on the field.
The greatest impact of that consistency is the lack of turnovers. Through five games, the Wolverines have turned the ball over only once, and it came on a garbage-time interception from graduate transfer Alan Bowman, who’s either third or fourth in the quarterback pecking order right now. For reference, they’d turned the ball over five times at the same point last season and 11(!) times through five games in 2019.
“It’s a big emphasis in our offense,” Harbaugh said. “Players, there’s a real focus there. When they get the ball, they understand the responsibility of taking care of it.”
Most of that progress falls on McNamara’s decision-making in the pocket. He’s yet to throw an interception through 152 attempts stretching into last season, and he hasn’t come particularly close. Though he’s been far from perfect this season — he missed a few open receivers against Wisconsin on Saturday — McNamara takes care of the ball extraordinarily well for a first-year starting quarterback who isn’t afraid to extend plays with his feet.
“My decision making is something I take a lot of pride in,” McNamara said Saturday. “And I think going into this game, especially when you’re playing better teams, any momentum that another team can get can be a difference in the game, and I think my taking care of the ball is my contribution to the team in terms of us playing complementary football.”
It doesn’t stop with turnovers, either. Thus far, Michigan has committed 25 penalties for 222 yards. On a national level, neither of those numbers is spectacular — they’re good for 21st and 30th in the country, respectively — but they’re a far cry from last season, when the Wolverines committed 34 penalties for 335 yards in their first five games.
Name any other area where mental errors tend to arise — from blown coverages, to missed blocking assignments, to lazy tackling — and there’ll be a clear difference between 2020 and 2021. As Michigan moves into the meat of its schedule and questions arise about whether its success is sustainable, that consistency is a positive sign moving forward.
When things started to go bad last season, the wheels came off. So far this year, the wheels look much sturdier.