Amid new sign-stealing accusations, Wolverines embrace 'Michigan versus everybody'

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 28: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines reacts.

As the Michigan football team boarded its flight ahead of its Week 10 game at Penn State, several players pulled up wearing shirts and beanies that carried the same message, etched in the school’s trademark maize and blue: Michigan vs. Everybody.

The team has embraced the mentality since the beginning of the season, and belief in the mantra grew stronger after the Wolverines landed in Happy Valley and found out head coach Jim Harbaugh was suspended for the remainder of the regular season by the Big Ten in the wake of a sign-stealing scandal.

“If you’re not with us, then you’re against us,” Wolverines wide receiver Roman Wilson said Friday as No. 1 Michigan prepared to face No. 4 Alabama Monday during a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl. “Your opinion, your thoughts, doesn’t really matter to us.”

After Michigan beat Penn State, Wolverines offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore — in the role of interim head coach — broke down in tears and dedicated the win to Harbaugh.

Read more: Rose Bowl Game: Five things to know about Michigan vs. Alabama

“The emotion was real,” Sherrone said Friday. “Just the hard work that these kids have put in this whole year, and for a moment like that against a really good football team at their place to — people try to kind of put our backs against the wall, which is kind of what these kids feed off of, and to watch them play the way they did, it just got to me.”

Even without Harbaugh, Michigan managed to stay undefeated, grabbing a crucial win over conference rival Ohio State en route to securing the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff semifinals — and establishing themselves as college football’s biggest villain.

Players have seen the negative discourse, but they say it doesn’t bother them. Defensive back Rod Moore viewed it as an opportunity to get stronger as a team. And offensive lineman Drake Nugent laughs at the idea that they’ve become so hated.

“It's kind of funny that we are constantly on ESPN or in SportsCenter or some media, Yahoo! Sports or whatever it may be," Nugent said. "It's funny to look at that stuff and still be able to win games while it's going on. It's kind of like a big middle finger to everyone, honestly. It's great when you have that much stuff talked about you and you can still win.”

Playing the role of the bad guy has become increasingly common for Harbaugh, and some of his players even suggested he might relish it.

“He'll come in with a smile the next day. … He'll crack one of his Coach Harbaugh jokes, like, ‘How is this dude OK right now? Like he just got suspended three games,’” offensive lineman Trevor Keegan said. “It is really just who he is as a person — so strong, blue collar. That's definitely fallen down on the rest of our team.”

Wilson sees where Keegan was coming from, but he says he thinks of Harbaugh as more of an anti-hero than a true villain.

“Deep down he definitely kind of likes being the bad guy for sure,” Wilson said. “I’m trying to think of a movie character or villain who is really just a good guy deep down. If you guys got an idea, that would be great for us because he likes being that villain, but he is a good guy at the end of the day. You know what I mean?”

But whether he’s more Professor X or Magneto, the gamesmanship appears to be in full swing ahead of the biggest game of the season. Alabama wide receiver Isaiah Bond and running back Jase McClellan made a splash Thursday when they each revealed they weren’t watching film individually, only in a group setting at team facilities. The strategy would make it more difficult for Michigan to observe Alabama's tactics and potentially steal signs.

Moore then revealed Friday that Michigan players were also restricted from watching film on their own, a decision that he said was made in early November as a precaution after hearing “some things."

Read more: Michigan's playoff semifinal loss to Texas Christian inspired its run to the Rose Bowl

Catapult Sports, which processes game and practice film for most college football teams, released a statement Friday that confirmed the NCAA is looking into unauthorized access to team video footage.

"We have conducted an internal investigation and have not found any security breach in our systems," the Catapult statement read. "... We will continue to support the ongoing investigation with the NCAA and local authorities. At Catapult, we hold ourselves to the highest of standards and safeguarding customer information is of utmost importance to us."

At the end of the day though, the Wolverines say they are focused on winning a national championship.

According to quarterback JJ McCarthy, what sets this close-knit team apart is its attention to detail, staying in the moment and ignoring outside noise.

“We’ve done a tremendous job of it, but we’ve got to continue to do that and not smell the roses,” McCarthy said. “Pun intended.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.