Jim Harbaugh speaks with a referee on the sidelines.
Michigan's low penalty yardage is by no accident. Its diligent approach and commitment to studying film from across the sport have payed dividends. Anna Fuder/Daily. Buy this photo.

Scanning Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on Saturday, physical evidence of the No. 2 Michigan football team’s dominance was easy to find. Many fans had cleared out of their seats by halftime, the Wolverines’ backups were playing in the third quarter and the scoreboard read a ‘0’ by Nebraska’s name for most of the afternoon.

But it’s what you couldn’t find on the field that was even more telling of Michigan’s wire-to-wire success. No laundry on the field penalizing the Wolverines, not a single one to their name — all game. 

No flags, and no need for it. Michigan kept to its season-long status quo of playing clean football, emerging from its week five win boasting the nation’s lowest average penalty yards per game at 18.6 and second fewest penalties per game at 2.6. 

“Just makes you feel great when you see it in the game,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “Zero penalties in this last game as a team — tremendous. … The biggest part is our guys really focused and dialed in situational awareness, technique and discipline. And they know the rules and do a great job.” 

It’s a skill that’s easier said than done. No matter how talented a team is, any small lapse — from jumping offsides on a hard count to losing your cool after a play — can uproot a game. Sure, being skilled enough to prevent getting beat and having to hold defenders helps, but knowing what each situation calls for and how to cleanly handle different moments in the game is even more critical. 

That awareness allows the Wolverines to have very few situations where they’re watching a referee explain a penalty called against them. Instead, it’s left them ample situations where they aren’t bogged-down behind the sticks on offense, or handing out free yards when their defense is out there. 

Avoiding giving up unnecessary yards in a game of inches is key, and Michigan knows it. The way the Wolverines see it, the answer to committing minimal penalties lies in knowing the game inside and out. Through a weekly meeting called ‘Teach The Game,’ dubbed “TTG,” led by tight ends coach Grant Newsome, the team watches clips from across collegiate and professional ranks. There, they learn from various triumphs and shortcomings for how to attack unique moments. 

During the season, the TTG meetings happen each Monday. Akin to a weekly laundry day for the team, it’s how they make sure everything stays clean. 

“I think the main thing we learned is just the dumb penalties, you see it every week,” senior edge rusher Braiden McGregor said Monday. “… We sit there and bring up the clips of the play and you kind of laugh (and are like) ‘Oh here we go’ and it’s like some dumb stuff on there. I think the TTG that we do, it teaches you so much more about football.”

Watching others commit “dumb penalties” on film helps mitigate those same penalties from popping up on the Wolverines’ own tape. And when it comes to finding those mistakes to learn from, no one is off limits. McGregor recalled watching Virginia in a recent TTG meeting in which the Cavaliers committed multiple personal fouls on the final drive, costing them the game. 

Evaluating others’ missteps is just how Michigan likes it. Although it certainly learns from its own mistakes on film, when it comes to penalties, there’s just not a lot of film to look at and grow from. The Wolverines have committed just 13 penalties all season. The system seems to be working. 

“Don’t be this guy and make this penalty in this crucial situation,” Harbaugh said of TTG sessions. “To throw the punch or lose your stuff. And it’s clips from all over college football, pro football. It’s great, it’s entertaining, it’s insightful, it’s a great learning experience.” 

Those learning experiences have kept Michigan’s side of the field free of stained laundry from the refs. Thanks to the learning experience that regular TTG sessions provide, the Wolverines look to remain consistent in playing clean football. 

To do that, they’ll need to keep doing their laundry at TTG sessions on Mondays, not on the field on Saturday’s.