Jim Harbaugh did not touch the “Go Blue” banner when he ran onto the field at Michigan Stadium for the first time as the Michigan football team’s head coach. He sprinted underneath it, his focus directed toward the sidelines.
He had insisted all week that his attention was only on the game itself, not the nostalgia of returning to the school he quarterbacked in college. The improvements his team needed to make after its season-opening loss were evident and plentiful. The run game had struggled, turnovers had been troubling and the defense had experienced lapses. There was little time to consider how it would feel when more than 100,000 fans, his own fans, would scream his name.
After his team defeated Oregon State on Saturday, 35-7, Harbaugh did not change his tone regarding the emotional side of his home debut and first victory as Michigan’s coach. He considered himself nothing more than a member of the University community.
“We enjoy that,” Harbaugh said. “You’re a very small part.”
But Harbaugh’s return brought more than a small dose of excitement to the Big House. It brought fans who came early and stayed late, and students who remained standing at their seats well into the second half, even in what became a blowout.
It also brought something rarely seen from Michigan in recent years: smashmouth football. Junior running back De’Veon Smith bulldozed his way to 126 yards and three touchdowns. He ran through tacklers, and he ran around tacklers. The first phrase Smith uttered in his postgame press conference was telling.
“Shout-out to the offensive line,” he said.
The unit has been criticized and picked apart in recent years, known more for allowing hits to the quarterback than making holes for running backs. That was not the case Saturday. The offensive line’s play improved as the game wore on. Michigan rushed for 215 yards after the first quarter, while the Beavers ran for minus-28 in that time.
Oregon State was able to hide its offensive ineptitude early on. The Beavers picked apart the Wolverine defense on a seven-play, 79-yard touchdown drive on their first possession of the game. Oregon State then forced a fumble when the Michigan offense took over, regaining possession on the Wolverines’ 24-yard line.
The opportunity to take a 14-0 lead was short-lived. Michigan junior defensive end Taco Charlton stripped Oregon State running back Victor Bolden of the ball, and Michigan senior linebacker Joe Bolden snatched it out of the air and returned it 17 yards. With that, the Beavers’ opportunity for offensive productivity had ended.
The Wolverines’ offensive production did not begin in earnest until 7:01 remained in the first half. Michigan orchestrated a 69-yard touchdown drive that featured a heavy dose of Smith. He ran for 22 yards on the drive, added 20 more on a 4th-and-5 reception and capped it with a touchdown.
Smith’s second touchdown of the game was the result of what Harbaugh called a fortuitous play with 1:12 left in the first half. Oregon State punter Nick Porebski settled back to punt, and booted the ball out of bounds on Michigan’s two-yard line. However, a penalty called the kick back.
The ensuing attempt resulted in disaster for the Beavers. The snap sailed over Porebski’s head, and the Wolverines took over on Oregon State’s three-yard line.
“That happens once a half-a-century for your team,” Harbaugh deadpanned.
Smith punched the ball into the end zone three plays later. Minutes earlier, Harbaugh had been furious at a roughing the punter call on Michigan, throwing his play sheet in disgust while relentlessly chirping at the referees. The stadium roared in agreement, basking in Harbaugh’s emotion, but his prior dissatisfaction mattered little after the Wolverines scored.
Michigan never relinquished the momentum as Oregon State reeled. The second half was similar to the end of the first. Smith finished the game with 23 carries, nine more than junior running backs Derrick Green and Ty Isaac combined. Smith and Green each added touchdowns to the Wolverines’ lead, and the size of their running holes only increased.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock, charged primarily with managing the game while Smith did the heavy lifting, finished 18-for-26 on passing attempts for 180 yards. He threw one interception, well after the result had been decided.
In the game’s final moments, Harbaugh walked straight to the center of the field to shake Oregon State coach Gary Andersen’s hand. If he was excited for his first win as Michigan’s head coach, he didn’t show it. He celebrated little on the field.
“It’s only the second game,” he said. “We’ve got a long season and a lot of work to do.”