From Dan Murphy, ESPN Staff Writer
It seems too soon to say it, but there’s no way around it anymore. Michigan is back.
The 12th-ranked Wolverines, winners of their past five, aren’t just beating opponents. They’re flattening them in more complete fashion with each passing week. To say this is a different team than a year ago is an understatement akin to saying the defense, orchestrators of three consecutive shutouts, doesn’t give up many points. Michigan’s play calling has improved and that defense is playing a more aggressive style, but those aren’t the changes that Wolverines players point to when asked why they’re winning.
“The coaches instilled in us in spring ball and fall camp and the summer that we’ve got to be tough,” defensive lineman Willie Henry said. “We’ve got to outwork people. We’ve got to feel like we outworked our opponent.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the same elixir every coach in America prescribes for his or her team at the start of the season. Former Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s teams held the same ideals every offseason. They even tried to assert their toughness in the same way: with a pro-style offense and a bruising defense. Michigan is trying to do the exact same things as a year ago with largely the same players. Only this time it’s working.
The obvious variables in that equation are Jim Harbaugh and the other coaches that followed him to his alma mater. The “Harbaugh Effect” has become a blanket explanation for anything positive happening in southeast Michigan during the last nine months — from an uptick on the recruiting trail to increased sales of tickets, parking spaces and khakis. But what’s the cause? How is he doing it, and doing it so fast?
“There’s something different about this team than last year,” running back De’Veon Smith said. “Even though we have the same players. It’s just, I don’t know, just something different.”
The rest of Smith’s teammates are at a similar loss for words when asked to identify why Harbaugh’s calls for hard work seem to resonate more than just about any other coach in the country. It’s not that they won’t tell you, it’s that they can’t. It’s more of a mystery than a secret. Michigan players have a hard time remembering when and why they started to believe in one another.
“I really don’t know, to be honest,” Smith said. “I guess maybe when we realized we were having four-hour practices.”
Smith said he didn’t realize it in the spring, back when Harbaugh was keeping his team on the field for the maximum amount of time allowed by NCAA rules for each session, but in retrospect he says that’s when they learned to lean on each other. The four-hour practices haven’t returned this fall, but their effects are now paying dividends.
All of the quirky Harbaugh methods that made the outside world shake its collective head this offseason are now what his players point to when prodded to think about why they’re having success.
He holds foot races to see who will earn a spot on special-teams units and keeps track of the winners. Senior Jehu Chesson is usually the top finisher, and he was the one with the ball on a 96-yard kick return to start Saturday’s game with a touchdown. The reward for winning practice competitions in camp was running more sprints, because it’s a privilege to be able to work hard. So it’s no surprise that instead of enjoying the final minutes of a 38-0 shutout by waving towels on the sideline, Michigan’s defensive starters were flying to the ball on Northwestern’s final series Saturday night.
Among his many reclamation projects, this has been the fastest the Harbaugh Effect has taken effect. The combination of frustration with Michigan’s recent past and faith in Harbaugh’s recent past provided him with a group of players willing to buy whatever he was selling. He sets an impossibly high bar and then convinces his team they can clear it. He’s gotten others over the bar before, after all.
There were no surprised faces in Michigan’s locker room after a 38-0 win over the No. 13 team in the country Saturday night. This was expected, they said. Michigan is winning games because they believe they’ve earned it.
“That excellence is expected from all our coaches,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “We have to be great. That’s the standard around here.”