INDIANAPOLIS — Jack Harbaugh dug deep Friday night. The task for the patriarchal soul of Michigan football was to convey the gravity of the moment. Coming into the 2021 Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday night, the first question to be answered was whether the No. 2 Wolverines would be hungover.
There was no way, popular thought went, that Michigan could rise as high mentally and physically as it had the previous week against Ohio State. The argument could be made, after all the previous frustration against the Buckeyes, that the 42-27 decision was the Wolverines’ national championship.
That’s why the 82-year-old father of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh spoke to the team Friday about finishing. He chose a forgettable fight by a forgettable former middleweight champion, Vito Antuofermo, to make his point.
In 1977, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart beat up on Antuofermo so bad, he broke his ribs. The The New York Times that night described Antuofermo as having “no physical attributes to brag about except he bled well.” But the then-24-year-old Italian immigrant pushed on through the pain.
Afterward, Antuofermo said, if he’d been hit in those ribs one more time, he would have quit. But he never did. In the fifth round that night, Antuofermo staggered Hart with a shot and eventually won by knockout.
“One more round. One more round!” said Jack Harbaugh, recounting his message to the Wolverines.
The 44-year-old message from another century was received in the moment. It took Saturday night for it to hit home. Michigan beat No. 13 Iowa 42-3 to ensure it one more round, that being in the College Football Playoff.
Coming into Saturday night’s raucous atmosphere at Lucas Oil Stadium, it could be argued the team with the most wins in college football history was still short one.
Michigan entered the game with 975 all-time wins, but it had never advanced to the College Football Playoff. Sure, the CFP has only eight of Michigan football’s 142 years of existence, but the point stands.
The result proved the Wolverines did not peak in the snow last week in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They did not leave years of longing back home. They opened a can of whoop ass on the Hawkeyes before opening up more possibilities.
Michigan: 2021 national champion? After what happened across the country Saturday, why not? It could be time to party like it’s 1997, the last time Michigan won it all.
“Everything’s in front of us,” linebacker Josh Ross said.
On the surface, this Big Ten Championship Game was “easier” than slaying the Ohio State giant. Michigan came in as a prohibitive 11-point favorite. Iowa had slogged its way to a 10-win season the way it usually slogs. The Hawkeyes didn’t do anything particularly well except create turnovers. Their 24 interceptions were the most by a Power Five team since 2014.
“The leading cause of interceptions in the United States is tipped balls and overthrows,” said Jim Harbaugh this week on the Big Ten Network.
Harbaugh sounded like a medical professional warning against the vagaries of dental plaque.
Michigan proved in the first half it hadn’t used its entire playbook against Ohio State. Running back Blake Corum ran 67 yards on UM’s seventh snap of the game. Fellow RB Donovan Edwards threw an option pass to a wide-open Roman Wilson for the second score. Those two plays accounted for 142 of Michigan’s 253 first-half yards.
Getting to this point means the season won’t be known only for beating the Buckeyes. There is further definition. There is a Big Ten title, the Wolverines’ first outright since 2003 in their first Big Ten Championship Game. There is a national playoff semifinal against a still unknown opponent. But at least Michigan will be there.
Who would have guessed all of this 11 months ago, the day Michigan had announced Harbaugh’s restructured contract extension that put the coach on notice after six seasons? https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/jim-harbaugh-finally-conquers-ohio-state-altering-his-career-as-michigan-declares-postseason-bonafides/ Maybe only that patriarch and his fiercely loyal family.
We get to watch Big Ten defensive player of the year Aidan Hutchinson one more time. We get to watch RB Hassan Haskins, who ran for almost half his yards this campaign in the final four games of the regular season. We get to watch a Maize and Blue blue blood injected with a bit of Cinderella.
Now, one of the most tradition-rich programs in sports is suddenly a newbie. In the previous seven years, only 12 teams have taken the 28 available spots in the playoff. A “new” team hasn’t appeared in the CFP at all since 2019. The bracket is now assured of at least some fresh faces with Clemson and Ohio State out of it.
And Michigan in it.
One more round.
How’d the Fightin’ Antuofermos get here? Quarterback Cade McNamara became something more than a game manager. Harbaugh rededicated himself and reassembled his coaching staff. Brother John, the Baltimore Ravens coach, recommended his linebackers coach become the Wolverines defensive coordinator.
Mike Macdonald, 34, quickly became a star putting together a top 10 scoring defense.
One brother diminished his staff to enrich his sibling’s chances of success.
“I really love Michigan football, and I really love you,” Jim said John told him, “so I want to see you both be successful.”
Told you the family was fiercely loyal.
Jack Harbaugh still tells stories about Bo Schembechler, the legend he worked under across seven seasons as defensive backs coach.
John Harbaugh has Bo’s famous quote — “The team, the team, the team” — plastered in the Ravens’ facility.
These Wolverines have a bit of Bo in this them.
Jim Harbaugh still runs a lot of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), preferring to grind it out instead of using eye candy. The offense bludgeons you, then lulls you asleep. Wide receiver A.J. Henning helped break open the Ohio State game with an end-around touchdown.
Who knew part of Michigan lore would now be a decades-old story about a middleweight palooka connected to a football-factory heavyweight.
“It was somewhat embellished,” Jack Harbaugh said impishly.
Check that, Jack. Nothing is embellished about Michigan at the moment.
“We’ve got to finish the mission,” Macdonald said this week.
At least one more round is assured.