For all the time spent discussing parity in major sports, there have always been certain teams and programs associated with winning and success. America has several premier sports franchises that have been ingrained into culture as bastions of success, such as the LA Lakers, the Boston Celtics, the New England Patriots, the Green Bay Packers, the Yankees, the Alabama Crimson Tide and more.
One program that would like to think that they belong among those superpowers in their respective sports is the University of Michigan football team. The Wolverines, who claim the banner as the all-time winningest college football team, have long held a premier status as one of the nation’s best college football programs in terms of recruiting and product put on the field.
However, since 2000, the Wolverines rank 22 among FBS programs in win-loss record, trailing fellow in-conference rivals such as No. 20 Nebraska, No. 18 Wisconsin, and No. 4 Ohio State. The program that once was one of the most popular in college football featuring dynamic players such as Heisman winners Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson has fallen on bad times relative to their previous success in the 1900s. However, this season the Wolverines are 4-0, featuring one of the most robust running games in the country behind a vastly overhauled staff led by former Michigan quarterback and head coach Jim Harbaugh.
To better ascertain the status of this Michigan Wolverines team ahead of their matchup against Wisconsin in Camp Randall, we at The Daily Cardinal reached out to Daniel Dash, a senior editor at The Michigan Daily majoring in Communication and Media as well as Economics. Dash is the football beat writer for the Daily this season and will be heading to Madison this Saturday to cover the game from the press box.
“The biggest storyline following the Michigan Wolverines this season is the staff overhaul featuring ten new assistant coaches,” said Dash. “Outside of defensive line coach Shaun Nua, there is an entirely new defensive staff with former Ravens linebacker coach Mike Macdonald brought in as the new defensive coordinator.”
Dash noted that this defensive staff is also extremely young, with defensive coordinator Macdonald being only 34 years of age. “I think that players really appreciate that aspect of the staff,” said Dash. “It is more of a conversation than a lecture when they interact with their coaches.”
Dash noted how this was a significant trend breaker for Jim Harbaugh, who has traditionally favored staff with heavy amounts of experience. “He has really branched out and gone out of his usual hiring scope,” noted Dash. “If you look at the old staff assistants like [former defensive coordinator] Don Brown who was 66, he had dinosaurs along his football staff and this is a major change-up from his past.”
Dash also noted that there seems to be a lot of friendly staff exchanges and ‘cross-pollination’ between Michigan and the Baltimore Ravens, who are led by head coach John Harbaugh — Jim’s older brother. Dash expanded that there are innate similarities between the programs, with both football teams featuring strong pass-rushers and productive running games.
“Offensively, this Michigan team is led by a two-headed backfield in [Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum] who have dubbed themselves ‘Thunder and Lightning.’ Haskins is the more physical of the two, the kind of back who runs through tacklers. Corum is the ‘lightning’ as he is very quick at the line of scrimmage, does a lot of jumping and sidestepping, much more likely to make the tackler miss in the open field.”
Dash noted that Corum’s ability to get vertical in the running game is something that has not been seen at Michigan since Karan Higdon’s 2018 season.
As far as quarterback play, Dash discussed that starting quarterback Cade McNamara had a “consistent three-and-a-half games of football before really falling apart in the game against Rutgers in the second half.” Dash noted that they started the second half against Rutgers with “four consecutive three-and-outs. They could not get the ball moving at all [on the ground] and McNamara made some pretty bad reads.”
“He often doesn’t keep the ball at all on RPOS, which really takes the PO out of the play, which is something that I think both McNamara and the staff are becoming more aware of. He senses pressure well, but gets a little jumpy and throws the ball off his back foot a lot.” Dash further expanded that because Michigan features a smaller receiving core, McNamara’s inconsistent accuracy often leads to mistakes and incompletions when pressured in the pocket.
Defensively, Dash noted the strong play of defensive end Aiden Hutchinson. “He’s a monster,” said Dash. “Before the season he was discussed as a fringe first round pick, but is now being talked about as a top-ten player.”
Dash discussed that since opponents have sent a lot of double-teams and triple-teams his way, Michigan really needs another pass-rusher to step up on the opposite side for the defense to take another step. Another player who has had a great start to the season is safety Daxton Hill, who has shifted more into a hybrid safety-nickelback this season. “[Hill] has done a really nice job as a slot corner, and Michigan has had good success when the ball is thrown his way.”
The Wolverines have shifted this season from what had been an aggressive man coverage and blitzing defense to a more traditional 3-4 base, “which has opened up a lot of doors for this team,” said Dash. But in order to move into an elite tier of college football defense, MacDdonald and the Wolverine defense will need to find a more consistent pass-rush opposite of Hutchinson, noted Dash.
As far as expectations for the season, Dash discussed how most did not expect Michigan to look as solid as they have during the first four games of the 2021 season. Although Jim Harbaugh signed an extension this offseason, “It was a five-year extension but kind of in-name-only. It was really a prove-it deal as the contract buyouts are pretty insignificant and decrease throughout the length of the contract.”
However, to establish this season as a bounce-back after some down years, Michigan will need to find a way to pass on Wisconsin, noted Dash. “With Jim Leonhard’s defense primed and ready to stop the running game of Michigan, the Wolverines will have to turn to McNamara in order to win at Camp Randall.” Given McNamara’s inconsistent play this year, Dash believes that the Badgers will win a close game against the Wolverines because of Wisconsin's experience in the secondary, which is littered with fifth and sixth-year seniors, as well as their strengths along the defensive line.
Dash ended the conversation noting, “I think this is a Michigan team that could win a New Year’s Six Bowl, and I didn't really think that was within the realm of possibility a month ago.”
That game will kickoff at 11 a.m. Central Time on Fox as Big Noon Kickoff returns to Madison to cover the Big Ten matchup between the Wolverines and the Badgers, where the Wolverines will attempt to win in Camp Randall for the first time since 2001.