At least physically, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh entered the 2021 season a changed man.
He spent much of the offseason working with strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert. In spring and fall practices, he pushed sleds and lifted weights alongside his team. By the start of the season, he’d gotten back down to his “playing weight” and said he felt more energized than ever.
Alongside Harbaugh’s reinvention of himself, he’s worked to reinvent his team’s approach to preparation. Practices are more exciting. There’s music. More competition. Every player who’s discussed the change from 2020 to 2021 has brought up the newfound energy on the practice field.
Perhaps Harbaugh’s most notable reinvention, though, has been in the name of a common drill:
“In years prior, we would call it 9-on-7, which is what the drill is,” junior offensive lineman Trevor Keegan said Sep. 13. “This year, we changed it to (the) Beat Ohio drill. Now, we’re blasting music, smelling salts, everything. And it’s a pretty physical period, and we love it.”
The drill itself isn’t anything special. Put simply, it’s football at its purest: The running back takes a handoff up the middle, and the defense tries to stop him. It’s seven blockers trying to clear out seven defenders so the back can score. It’s old-school, hat-on-a-hat football.
But more importantly, the name represents a newfound emphasis on the Ohio State rivalry from a program that, under Harbaugh, has struggled to keep up. The numbers speak for themselves: zero wins, five losses and a combined score of 221-126. With the change, Harbaugh hopes to send a clear message that those results aren’t acceptable in such an important rivalry.
That change has also elevated the competition level within the drill itself. Before, it was just another element of practice, another opportunity to make minor on-field gains. Now, it’s the most competitive part of practice and a time that the entire team looks forward to every day.
“When that period comes up, whether it was practice in the spring or fall camp — we did it every day we had pads on,” Harbaugh said. “And we do it every Tuesday and we do it Monday during the season — that has become a drill of emphasis. Look forward to it. Excitement. They wanted music, so we play music during that drill.”
Of course, the drill’s new name alone won’t snap the Wolverines’ eight-game losing streak against the Buckeyes. To do so will require more progress than can be described in this entire issue, let alone one article.
But that doesn’t render it useless, especially in the context of other efforts to refocus on Ohio State. Over the summer, pictures emerged on social media of a sign in the weight room that read “What are you doing today to beat Ohio State?” At Big Ten Media Days in July, both Harbaugh and senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson emphasized beating the Buckeyes as a priority in 2021.
In isolation, the name change would probably just be a gimmick. But taken in conjunction with everything else — even if it’s impossible to know if the team is really emphasizing Ohio State, or if it’s mostly just talk — it seems like there is at least some element of refocusing this season.
“It’s always been a period we take a lot of pride in,” fifth-year offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said. “I’m not really sure when it got changed. But it kind of came along with the whole tradition of, ‘What are you doing to beat Ohio State every day?’ Kinda taking that rivalry into focus every day is a big focus for us.”
Still, the question remains: Is it enough? It’s not controversial to say that the Buckeyes have taken the rivalry more seriously in recent years — it’s visible not just in their success in the game, but in their entire demeanor outside of it. Ohio State has always emphasized rivalry all year; the Wolverines seem to have just begun that.
And, of course, there’s still the talent gap. The 247Sports Talent Composite — which aggregates recruiting rankings from previous years to rank a team’s overall talent level — ranks the Buckeyes as the third-most talented team in the country. Michigan? Fifteenth.
Regardless, if Harbaugh’s Wolverines can catch up to Ohio State, it won’t happen overnight. A re-emphasis on the rivalry is just one step on a long road toward being competitive in it again.
At the end of the day, though, it only takes one win to transform the rivalry.