Early on in the fourth quarter, the game out of hand, Michigan Stadium’s ops people decided to go for the kill. Zombie Nation blasted from the speakers. The fans played along, mocking Penn State with its own chant. On the very next play, David Long picked off Trace McSorley, getting to the Nittany Lions’ 12-yard line before, mercifully, being taken down.
That’s what this game was. Taunting with reckless abandon, kicking someone when they were down, then rubbing their face in dirt for good measure. Michigan beat down Penn State 42-7, but it was more than a beat down.
All week, the talk at Schembechler Hall pegged this game as personal. We heard about Don Brown’s lack of sleep, about the disrespect the Nittany Lions showed at the end of last year’s game. A lot of the time, talk is just that — talk. On Saturday, we saw what personal looks like.
[After THE JUMP: An obligatory shot at James Franklin, but also a column]
“I understand that Penn State tried to run up the score last year,” Shea Patterson said. “... Our mindset was to play our game, and if we had the chance, we were going to run it up too.”
Much as the first half was dominated by a comedy of errors from James Franklin, it was also clear from the outset that the Wolverines were, simply, better. After Michigan coughed up a 25-yard catch-and-run to Pat Freiermuth on the Nittany Lions’ first play, Chase Winovich and Josh Uche proceeded to wreck McSorley with two straight sacks. That set the tone for the rest of the game.
The Wolverines were in the backfield constantly, buoyed by Rashan Gary’s return. As a team, they finished with five sacks, six tackles for loss and a home inside Penn State’s head.
“It’s not their spirit being broken, it’s our spirit feeling unstoppable,” Winovich said.
“That’s just the feeling I got. … We got to that point and as soon as we get to that point, we’re a tough team to go back from. We’re a more mature and veteran group. We know how to get to that level just playing our best game.”
The revenge tour trope has long been played out, an inevitability from the moment Winovich declared it. But, as the Wolverines followed touchdowns with Saquon Barkley’s windmill arms and mimicked McSorley’s home run celebration on the sidelines, it was hard not to feel it in full.
“You get in that mood, you get in that game mode — in my mind, it’s almost like all bets are off,” Winovich said. “That’s why I said, 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, that’s what it is. At the same time, I’m not gonna get mad, or you can’t get mad when stuff like that happens back at you. I had some fun with it.”
Michigan poured it on, adding another score after Long’s interception, then tried as hard as possible to keep the shutout. Jim Harbaugh challenged a call, a rarity — not when the game was still in hand, but when the Wolverines were up 42-0 and Penn State was trying to play out the string.
After the game, a reporter asked Harbaugh about Michigan’s aggressiveness at the end of the game and the personal nature of it. The coach seemed almost incredulous in his response.
“What, how personal it was? They’re personal,” Harbaugh said. “Yeah, these are personal. You want to strive for happiness, strive for elation. You want to win.”
Of course, this was more than wanting to win. It was wanting to dominate, to bully, to leave an impression. Consider it done.
Three weeks ago, the Wolverines came into Wisconsin with questions to answer, knowing the next three games would define their season. They wanted to be taken seriously as a national title contender, let alone a Big Ten contender. Doing that meant winning at least two, if not all, of their next three games.
On Saturday, they left Michigan Stadium having answered the call. They won all three games. Convincingly. There’s no questions anymore — other than Dylan McCaffrey, who suffered a broken collarbone on Saturday, there aren’t even any injuries to get worried about.
The defense is terrifying. Patterson is the best quarterback Harbaugh has had since arriving in Ann Arbor. Higdon, barring unforeseen circumstances, will blow through the 1,000-yard mark next week. The offensive line held its own against the best run defense in the conference, then the best pass rush in the conference in subsequent weeks.
Yeah, this team is a contender alright.