A few weeks ago, Jim Harbaugh stood in front of his team after a course-defining 21-7 win at Michigan State and said a few words.
He started by saying it may have been his biggest win ever, that he had never had a bigger win than that.
Then he thanked his players.
“On a personal note,” Harbaugh said, “I can’t tell you how many guys came up to me and said, ‘Coach, we’ve got your back.’ Who are they to talk about you?”
He paused, seemingly tied up by his emotions.
Freshman quarterback Joe Milton, who had been live-streaming the post-game celebration from his phone, chimed in.
“It’s okay, coach, to cry,” he said, grinning.
The team broke out in laughter. Then they surrounded Harbaugh, in a visitor’s locker room deep in enemy territory, and went back to celebrating.
I thought about that moment throughout Saturday, as Michigan finished a three-game gauntlet against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State by thrashing the Nittany Lions, 42-7.
The Wolverines dominated early. They dominated late. They played as if they were pissed off.
In the second quarter, sophomore receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones pulled in a touchdown from junior quarterback Shea Patterson. Then he ran across the back of the endzone, windmilling his arms in celebration alongside his teammates.
It may have looked familiar. That’s because it was former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley’s touchdown celebration after his game-opening touchdown in a 42-13 win over Michigan last year.
After the game, Peoples-Jones posted a photo of his celebration on Instagram after the game and tagged Barkley.
Barkley’s response: ‘Young savage.’
Later in the game, Chase Winovich was caught on camera mimicking Trace McSorley’s home-run-swing celebration. Patterson did it, too, among others.
After the game, Winovich said he meant no disrespect to McSorley, a player who he admires.
Then, by explaining why he and his teammates copied Penn State’s touchdown celebrations, he summed up what has driven this team all year.
“I’m just having fun. You get in that mood and that game mode,” Winovich said. “In my mind, it was almost like all bets are off. It’s fine if you want to laugh at running the score up and have a jolly old time. In my mind, it’s fair game, it’s football, it is what it is. But at the same time, you can’t get mad when stuff like that happens back at you.”
It goes back to Michigan State, when Michigan’s players backed up their head coach. It goes back to the ‘revenge tour’ phrase coined by Winovich and adopted by his teammates. It goes back to every single slight the Wolverines felt they had endured last fall, when they went 8-5. When the jokes about perpetually finishing third in the Big Ten East were at the height of their popularity. When criticism of Harbaugh ran rampant.
Michigan remembers all of that, and more.
The Monday after the win against Michigan State, Harbaugh read a 2014 quote from Mark Dantonio off a piece of paper pulled from his pocket as he criticized Michigan State’s role in a pregame incident between the two teams.
A week or so later — nearly a year after that 42-13 loss — Michigan’s players kept saying they remembered Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin and then-offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead laughing on the sidelines as they tried to score a late touchdown.
“I wasn’t a part of the team last year, but I understood Penn State ran up the score last year,” Patterson said.
“It was personal from the start, from the jump,” added senior running back Karan Higdon.
Pity Rutgers and Indiana, because the revenge tour didn’t end at Penn State. No, Michigan has displayed a deep-seated determination to bully every team in the Big Ten, to prove what happened last year is simply that: the past.
The Wolverines have played confident football, they have carried themselves with swagger in doing so, and they are surely having a hell of a lot more fun than they were last fall. And now I think it is beyond safe to say this group has the look of a special team.
This is the grudge match to end all grudge matches, and so far, with the exception of a season-opening loss at Notre Dame, Harbaugh and Michigan have made every critic eat their words. They have paid back what they received last year.
I’ll let Mr. Winovich take it away.
“We wanted our lunch money back, we wanted them to pay interest,” Winovich said. “The bank’s closed on Sundays, but it looks like we’ve got some deposits to make.”