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Michigan Football 2023 Postmortem: Big Ten Champs Again!

Also national champions, if you’re into that sort of thing

Michigan Wolverines... Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

Never doubt the power of Factorio and Chick-fil-A.

I’m known around here as the pessimistic Michigan fan, a title well-deserved. But I’m also known as the guy who can’t watch his team play in big games without breaking things (including, probably, himself). I hide during these games. I don’t follow them in any way. I lose myself in something else. A book. A video game. A good workout at the gym (just kidding about that last one).

In 2021, Michigan was 10-1 headed into The Game. It was at home and all my friends were so optimistic! I knew better. I’d seen this play out in 2016, and again in 2018. Every season ended the same way. Michigan gets murdered by Ohio State, and then we lose a bowl game. It was practically a meme at this point.

So instead of watching, I booted up a computer game called Factorio, because it makes time evaporate for me. And after a couple hours I got hungry, so I dragged my econo-sized ass to Chick-fil-A for some comfort food. And that’s where I was when the text thread between RockyMtnNephew and RockyMtnNiece began, and I discovered that there was joy in the world after all.

So since then, I’ve gone back to that combo for almost every game I was worried about. MSU, PSU, OSU in 2022. MSU, PSU, OSU in 2023. Then the ‘24 Rose Bowl. Then the ‘24 national title game. I was at family events for the ‘21 Orange Bowl and the ‘22 Fiesta Bowl. I know better now. Factorio and Chick-Fil-A are 8-0. Perhaps the only force on earth more powerful than Michigan’s defensive tackle rotation.

Michigan’s ‘23 season sorts nicely into 4 distinct parts.

Part I: The First Harbaugh Suspension (Cupcakes)

Michigan opened the season without head coach Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines for the non-conference part of the season. Harbaugh had been suspended by Michigan for Cheeseburgergate so Michigan played those games with different coaches taking turns being the acting head coach. All the pundits (including this one) said Michigan was loaded so we expected Michigan would still destroy three tomato cans.

Michigan won the games, but failed to cover the spread in any of them. JJ McCarthy managed to throw three picks to Bowling Green of all teams. The Wolverines looked good. They didn’t look great.

The big takeaway from these games was the vulnerability of the offensive tackles to an athletic pass rush. It was exacerbated by Michigan doing all kinds of weird rotations there, while most of us wondered why the hell Ladarious Henderson wasn’t playing.

Part II: Harbaugh is Back (Death Ensues)

Here are the results of the six regular-season Michigan games that included their head coach on the sideline:

That’s six consecutive Big10 games with an average score of 45-7. Sure, it was a down year for the middle of the Big10, but that’s still insane. It was after the MSU game that I committed to visiting a friend in Virginia so we could go to the Maryland game together.

This happy portion of the season was characterized by each opponent having something that worked for a minute. And then it didn’t. Also by Michigan playing two high safeties almost all the time, despite clearly not being afraid of the passing attack of any of these opponents. As a fan, it’s hard to complain about your team winning by 38 every week, but here we were, bitching about two high safeties. Sports fans, man.

Part III: Harbaugh is Suspended Again (The Schedule Gets Real)

On November 10th, Big10 shitbird commissioner Tony Petitti suspended Jim Harbaugh for three games for signgate, without bothersome details like an investigation or due process. Fine. Bet.

Sherrone Moore was at the helm in Happy Valley. This wasn’t Indiana they were playing. Penn State was ranked 9th and Beaver Stadium is an evil place to play. Worse, it became immediately clear that Michigan’s offensive tackles, perhaps the shakiest part of the team all year, had absolutely no answer for Chop Robinson. It looked like he was playing against high school kids. Bad high school kids. And slow. Slow, bad high school kids.

So without Harbaugh, Michigan did the most Harbaugh thing ever. They started rolling seven offensive linemen and an in-line tight end, created all the gaps in the world, and dared the ultra-aggressive PSU defense to figure out the run fits. Michigan didn’t score a lot against that great defense, but they didn’t need a lot against the Nittany Lions, who were basically “Iowa with talent”. Final score 24-15.

Then Maryland. When the game ended, I turned to my friend in the stands and said “We got a defensive touchdown, TWO safeties, downed a punt inside the one, and won the turnover battle by 2. And we won by one score. Fuck me we’re Iowa-East.” Nothing more needs to be said about this game.

And finally, The Game. And now we learn why Michigan kept two high safeties against no-threat teams like PSU. For these two programs, if you don’t win The Game, nothing else matters. Michigan had been practicing for Ohio State all year.

And it showed. My go-to blogger for X’s and O’s had to punt this game to other bloggers. “I’m not qualified to evaluate this game. This was Ohio State’s NFL passing offense against Michigan’s NFL passing defense.” Michigan got two interceptions and held Marvin Harrison Jr to 5/118 and a TD. That’s not a bad day, but it’s not MHJ good. You can win with that, and Michigan did 30-24. A third consecutive win in The Game and a third consecutive conference title game berth. In 2020 I would not have expected Michigan to get three CCG appearances in my lifetime.

Part IV The Postseason (Expectations Exceeded)

Conference Championship Game. The Big10 West was so bad this year, Iowa managed to win 10 games. They scored no points against the Wolverines in the CCG, though. Then they scored no points in the Citrus Bowl. This is article is supposed to be about Michigan, but tell me that isn’t the perfect ending to Bryan Ferentz’s career in Iowa City.

The Rose Bowl. Michigan is good at losing Rose Bowls. Only five other teams have as many appearances in the Rose Bowl as Michigan has losses. We were playing Alabama. The best coach in college football, equipped with as many five-star recruits as the entire Big10 conference. It didn’t go to script.

Blue’s preposterously deep defensive line racked up six sacks, and pressured Jalen Milroe all game. Michigan’s talent in the back seven doesn’t come close to Alabama’s, but they were smart, veteran players with a great game plan to disguise coverage, and they tackled like demons (the Tide’s first touchdown notwithstanding). The offense was good enough, and Blake Corum looked like pre-injury Blake Corum in overtime. 27-20 good guys.

National Title Game. If there was any justice in the world, this would have been the Rose Bowl matchup. Undefeated Pac12 team against undefeated Big10 team for the last time. But no. Alabama had to go and fuck with the program. You deserved that loss, Alabama.

Like Michigan, Washington won their playoff game with a defensive stand on the final play. Unlike Michigan, Washington torched the Texas defense most of the day. Were Michigan fans worried? Well I was, of course, most were not.

The Wolverines were a terrible draw for the Huskies. Michigan has built their whole damned program post-2020 to beat Ohio State. They played those two damned high safeties all year, practicing to beat OSU’s pro passing game. Washington was a typical-year Ohio State team, except without all the 5-star talent on defense being wasted by bad coaching.

Michael Penix had a rough day. He missed some passes he doesn’t usually miss. It’s hard to know how much of this was because pressure sped him up, and how much weird, disguised coverages shook his confidence, and how much was just having a bad day. And in any case, it wasn’t awful. Washington was within a score for most of the 2nd half.

But the Michigan ground game completely dominated the first 15 minutes, and the last 8 minutes of the game. That was enough for a 21-pt win and Michigan’s first national title in 26 years. Personally, I give no credence to the rumors the coaches poll tried to give Tom Osborne a second retirement gift.

So How’d All This Happen?

Michigan sucked in 2020. They finished 2-4 and would have finished 2-7 if they had played all 9 games. But after, a couple things happened:

First, Jim Harbaugh cleaned house in the coaching staff, particularly on defense, getting much younger, much more dynamic. Gone was terror-to-bad-teams-but-gift-to-good-ones Don Brown. Gone was excellent-coach-but-shitty-team-member Ed Warriner. Gone was complacent Mike Zordich. They weren’t the only ones.

Sherrone Moore kept the offensive line, but also was promoted to co-OC. Harbaugh stole Mike Hart from Indiana and Steve Clinkscale from Kentucky. And most importantly, he got his brother’s protege Mike McDonald to run the defense.

McDonald installed a college version of the Ravens’ defense in 2021, and then went back to Baltimore to be their DC. Michigan beat OSU with that defense, so Harbaugh kept it by bringing in his brother’s other protege, Jesse Minter.

How many times have we, as fans, thought things like this after a loss:

  • “What the hell were these clowns thinking?”
  • “Let’s run a sweep into the boundary against an 8-man front one more time. I’m sure this time it’ll work.”
  • “I’m shocked, SHOCKED I say that we just got burned by a three-man pressure. Again.”
  • “A 4-yard out on 3rd and 8. HOW much are we paying this jackass again?”
  • “My grandmother could have called a better game, and she’s been dead 15 years.”

It’s difficult to overstate the positive impact these two coordinators made on this program the last three years.

If the last three Ohio State games weren’t enough to convince someone of the value of good coordinators, this year’s playoffs should have. Sherrone Moore’s offensive game plan against Alabama’s world-eating defense was smart and pragmatic. A hundred subtle tweaks in the run game to confuse Bama’s athletes, and a clear intent to simply avoid their monster corners. A good scheme to get a linebacker on a slot receiver netted a 38-yard touchdown. And then in overtime, 2023 Blake Corum channeled 2022 pre-injury Blake Corum for a couple plays, and we had 27 points.

Against Washington it was more run dominance followed by a stretch of where he got a bit conservative (a thing he is wont to do), but then a perfectly called drive again to put it away in the fourth quarter.

But the real maestro here was Jesse Minter. Michigan rushed 5 all day in both games, after seldom blitzing all season, but they never ran the same pressure twice. The real work, though, was the coverage game plans. Alabama QB Jalen Milroe and all-world Washington QB Michael Penix were never comfortable. And it wasn’t just the pressure. They never knew where the double teams were. They could never figure out if Michigan was in zone or man, a goofy pattern-match switch, or some weird combination of them. Those two teams made their living throwing deep this year. Michigan gave up exactly one deep pass in both games combined.

The other thing that happened, the bigger thing that happened, was the players took their team back.

Those Who Stay Will Be Champions

It started with Hassan Haskins, Aiden Hutchinson, and Cade McNamara. Sadly, none of those players got a playoff win, but they got an OSU win and a Big10 title. And as they departed it was picked up by others. Zach Zinter. Olu Oluwatimi. Kris Jenkins. Blake Corum. JJ McCarthy. And especially Mike Sainristil. I’ve never seen a Michigan football team have the strength of leadership this program has had the last three years.

Michigan’s overall talent level is overblown. People are saying there were 17 2024 draft picks on this team. I doubt that. And if there are, about 14 of them are 5th-7th round. This isn’t an Alabama or Georgia or Ohio State team putting six or seven guys into the first two rounds. Mike Sainristil was an excellent college football player. He doesn’t have the size/athleticism package to be successful on Sundays.

Other than the defensive tackles, Michigan didn’t out-athlete teams the better teams on the schedule. They won by with experience and focus. Those players stayed focused through a season that provided infinite distraction for them.

This was a really good college football team. It wasn’t a single generational player surrounded by some guys. These men were a pleasure to watch (even on delay after Factorio and Chick fil A). They played loose and they played confident. They were led by a quarterback who attacked the game with joy and fearlessness we should all strive for. They are almost certainly the greatest Michigan football team of my lifetime. Not my lifetime so far, but my lifetime. Period.

I miss them already.


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