Can Jim Harbaugh complete his 2021 overhaul with an upset of Ohio State?
It’s customary for coaching staffs to spend a week during the offseason studying each upcoming opponent on the schedule. They watch all of their cut ups, learn personnel and create files on tendencies to ease the cram of game week.
All the coaches who studied 2020 Michigan for the 2021 season basically wasted their time. While some of the personnel remains the same, no program in college football changed so much on both sides of the ball without changing head coaches.
It’s hard to think of a comparable schematic overhaul to the one Jim Harbaugh oversaw at Michigan this season. After an underwhelming 2020 when Michigan went 2-4 and led to him taking a pay cut, the changes have prompted a resurgence that has seen the No. 5 Wolverines go 10-1 and rocket into the thicket of the College Football Playoff conversation in 2021.
On Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan will receive the ultimate referendum on how far it has come. And, potentially, how much further it needs to go. The Wolverines play No. 3 Ohio State, amid a lopsided run in the series that has seen Ohio State win eight consecutive, the past three games by an average of three touchdowns and 17 of the past 19 meetings. (The game was canceled last year due to COVID-19.)
Michigan has overhauled its offense, upgraded its defense and saved Harbaugh’s job. Harbaugh’s work in 2021 has been exemplary, as he’s is in contention for Big Ten coach of the year and deserves kudos for the introspection and nimbleness to overhaul his staff and establish new identities on both sides of the ball.
But Harbaugh has never beaten Ohio State as Michigan’s head coach, and only one of the five games has been within one score (the 2016 game where Harbaugh got a punitive sideline penalty in a 30-27 double-overtime loss).
Yahoo Sports spoke with a half-dozen coaches and assistants who’ve played the Wolverines to see what they’re doing different. And, ultimately, if that gives them a chance against the Buckeyes.
Michigan's offensive overhaul
The short version of Michigan’s offensive transformation was summed up this way by an opposing coach.
“They said, ‘Screw you, here we come,’” he said. “What they’re doing, it’s a little bit like watching Wisconsin play. That’s who they are.”
One coach observed to Yahoo Sports that Michigan went from playing a lot of three-receiver sets — the so-called 11 personnel that’s become college football’s base formation — to channeling the identity of Harbaugh’s teams early on at Stanford. There are, on occasions, extra offensive linemen, three tight end sets and receivers motioned for extra blockers.
“I was hoping they ran 11 [personnel],” said another opposing coach. “We felt really good about them in 11 personnel when they’re running sideways and stuff.”
Instead, Michigan has been defiantly bland and exponentially more effective than past seasons. The Wolverines virtually abandoned the run in 2020, with only six teams running less than the 28.7 rushes per game. They had the country’s No. 95 rush offense (131) and sputtered accordingly.
“We weren’t worried about their run game going into the summer,” observed another coach. “They were basic.”
That changed, with one veteran coach observing that Michigan has taken on many of the same formations and the same run menu as Stanford during Harbaugh’s time there, specifically in 2009 and 2010. Another added that these are things that philosophically Harbaugh “is really committed to and believes in.”
They don’t run a lot of plays, but they have a lot of formations and have shown the ability to adjust quick on offense. Another coach compared the run game to the Baltimore Ravens', with “motions and downhill runs and gap schemes.”
Michigan is averaging nearly 15 more runs per game, and the rush offense has improved to No. 15 nationally (218.4). While few coaches gave Michigan much of a chance — more on that later — the consistent pathway was controlling the ball, eating clock and keeping Ohio State’s top-ranked offense off the field.
“Obviously I feel like everyone felt like Michigan lost who they are,” said another coach. “Now it’s like Iowa or Wisconsin in terms of knowing who they are. They don’t have a quarterback who can do much, but they are just really efficient.”
Michigan has two effective tailbacks, the bruising Hassan Haskins (4.9 ypc) and the electric Blake Corum (6). Corum hasn’t played since Nov. 6, but is hopeful for the Ohio State game. Blue-chip freshman Donovan Edwards caught 10 balls for 170 yards against Maryland, a wrinkle that will put fear in OSU’s defensive staff.
Dr. Quarters and his flaw that needs improvement
Coaches raved about the job Mike Macdonald, who came from Baltimore this offseason, has done in overhauling the Wolverines’ defense. Michigan went from a primary man team to one that effectively mixes defenses.
“The one thing that he’s done is figure out what you are best at, and then does everything to take it away,” said another coach. “The in-game adjustments were as fast as anyone I’ve coached against.”
Michigan’s defense performed generally well under former coordinator Don Brown, but the seismic nature of big-game flops — especially against Ohio State — led to his departure. “I think [Macdonald has] steadied the ship a little bit,” one coach said of the coordinator change. “They’re not as all or nothing.”
The mixture of quarters coverage has been a welcome mix to Michigan’s defensive repertory. Michigan’s corners are still considered a weakness, which was magnified by Brown’s defense often isolating them in man coverage. The mesh routes OSU ran effortlessly against Michigan likely won’t be as easy as in past years.
“When you’re not on an island playing in man coverage the entire game, you have a chance to watch the quarterback’s eyes, break on the ball and be more aggressive in the run game,” said a coach.
One distinct weakness of Macdonald has been Michigan’s substitutions. One coach lauded Michigan State’s offense for running up-tempo when star defensive end Aidan Hutchinson was off the field, which prevented the Wolverines from substituting him in on a touchdown drive.
One assistant coach who played Michigan later in the season said their staff put together a cut up of Michigan’s substitution issues to show their team as incentive to play fast.
“Tempo hurts that defensive coordinator a lot,” the coach said. “We had a bunch of clips we showed our guys where they have 10 or 12 guys on the field. He’s an NFL guy that doesn’t really know tempo, and a bunch of people have got him with that.”
The superstar: Aidan Hutchinson
In a year with an undistinguished field, there’s a potential Heisman Trophy argument for Hutchinson if Michigan can beat Ohio State. Hutchinson has been a one-man game-plan wrecker for Michigan, a 6-foot-6, 265-pound defense end who is No. 10 nationally in sacks (10).
Ask coaches about Hutchinson and prepare for gushes of praise in return. While he’s not as physically gifted as some of the rare elite talent we’ve seen in the Big Ten — “Nick Bosa light,” one assistant labeled him — he’s been one of the most effective players in the conference in recent years. The word relentless came up relentlessly in describing Hutchinson.
One coach compared Hutchinson’s effort to former Michigan State defensive end Kenny Willekes, a walk-on who dominated the league in 2018 and 2019. The difference is that Hutchinson is bigger, stronger and twitchier with the same motor.
“I think he’s the best defensive lineman in the country, and it’s not even close,” said one coach, who likes him more than the presumptive No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft. “If you ask me between him and Kayvon Thibodeaux, I’d take [Hutchinson] all day. He’s more physical in the run game and a dynamic pass rusher.”
Opposing offensive coaches were impressed how Macdonald used him on defense, as Michigan has varied fronts, and he’ll line up both to the field and boundary to confuse offenses.
Hutchinson’s success has fueled a breakout season for David Ojabo, the pass rusher opposite of Hutchinson who has 10 sacks and an astounding five forced fumbles.
One coach predicted that OSU coach Ryan Day’s NFL background will prompt him to focus on erasing Michigan’s strength, which is its rush ends. Regardless, a disruptive afternoon from Hutchinson is Michigan’s best chance to slow Ohio State. Can the talented rush ends cover for pedestrian outside cover corners?
“Their best bet is zone pressure, if you want to mess with a young quarterback’s head,” said one coach. “Play your quarters stuff and hope Hutchinson gets home. If he doesn’t, it’s going to be a touchdown every time.”
Can Michigan win?
Only one coach of six gave Michigan much of a shot. A few laughed with skepticism when the topic was raised.
A few conversations with coaches — even defensive ones — lasted 15 minutes before Michigan’s quarterback situation arose. Junior Cade McNamara has been steady and unspectacular all year. Michigan’s mauling run game has left him relatively untested, and the occasional cameo from freshman reserve J.J. McCarthy has doubled as a wish for more dynamism at that position.
“We weren’t worried about the quarterback,” said one coach. “We felt if we got them to third down, we’d be OK. But we didn’t get there to force them into passing down.”
Michigan’s lack of pass production, shaky cover corners and vulnerability to quick tempo make Ohio State the likely choice, even in a road game.
“I bet you they win by 14,” one coach said of Ohio State. “I just think Michigan is too one-dimensional, and I don’t think they can run the ball against Ohio State as well as they think they’re going to run the ball.”
Added another: “I think the Buckeyes’ skill will be too much because the Buckeyes’ offensive line will be able to slow down their two pass rushing ends.”
Michigan’s overhaul has been one of the biggest stories in the sport in 2021. Now we’ll see if it can get the ending right, or learn how far it is away from being Big Ten champions.