Jim Harbaugh's throwback style of bully ball flattened Penn State, but how far can it take Michigan?

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan's offense is something out of the Bo Schembechler era. Then again, so is its record.

It’s 7-0 now for the No. 5 Wolverines after they completely dominated 10th-ranked Penn State on Saturday, 41-17. That marks consecutive 7-0 starts for the first time since they did it four seasons in a row from 1971-75 and Schembechler was at his legendary peak.

Those are the golden glory days around here, sepia-toned memories that the program constantly tries to duplicate. But Bo never won a national title, let alone had to deal with a playoff that stacked SEC powers against him. Michigan went 1-2-1 against Ohio State during that run. The standards now are different.

The Wolverines' coach, Jim Harbaugh, is an old quarterback but he is running things like an offensive lineman. The rest of the country may be obsessed with athletes in space and style points galore, but blunt-force trauma seems to be the goal in Ann Arbor.

A wide-open passing attack? Try running it 55 times for 411 yards.

Tempo offense? Try 41:56 time of possession.

Bend-but-don’t-break defense? Penn State had just one first down in the first half (to Michigan’s 18) as the Wolverines just manhandled them.

Michigan controlled the clock, controlled the game (even when Penn State stayed flukily in it) and controlled the will of its opponent. It never punted.

This was some kind of Big Ten fantasy come to life, just a pure bludgeoning. And it came against a team that had allowed just 79.6 yards per game on the ground, fifth best in the country.

“Like coach Harbaugh said, ‘It was a butt-kicking in every which way a butt can be kicked,” quarterback J.J. McCarthy said.

“Yeah,” Harbaugh said, “that’s my favorite way to win a game.”

Sure, but can that style of play win it all? Because these days, for better or worse, the game is national, not regional, and the mockery of only coming close, as absurd as it is, can cripple a program.

Well, this way was enough to stop the Buckeyes a year ago, Michigan imposing its physicality on an Ohio State team that was more about pyrotechnics.

Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown in the first half against Penn State. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
Michigan Wolverines running back Blake Corum (2) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown in the first half against Penn State. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

That was one time, though. And once Michigan got to the playoff, Georgia rag-dolled them with little concern.

Yet rather than change things up, Harbaugh appears to have doubled down. He may now start a quarterback in McCarthy who was a five-star recruit with a Verlander of an arm, but the game plan calls for a steady diet of Blake Corum (166 yards and two touchdowns) and Donovan Edwards (173 yards and two more scores).

Or maybe, more accurately, anyone jumping through holes as Ryan Hayes and Zak Zinter and Trevor Keegan and the other offensive linemen unleashed violence the way they did on the Nittany Lions.

“We have the best offensive line in the country,” said McCarthy, who threw for 145 yards and rushed for 57. His yards per attempt was just 6.04 — almost junior high numbers — but anyone suggesting Michigan should try anything different should check with the QB.

“When you're rushing for 400 yards against the No. 10 team in the country, I’ll sit back and be a part of that ride every single game,” McCarthy smiled.

Michigan shouldn’t have to apologize for anything. Saturday was a complete domination. They are the reigning Big Ten champions, a program that has won 19 of its last 21 games. Their stadium was packed with 110,812, maize-clad devotees on a sun-splashed, leaves-changing, crisp autumn day.

This was football perfection.

So maybe proudly zigging while everyone else is zagging can yield something.

This is how Michigan is going to play football. Maybe it is good enough. Maybe it isn’t. But they are coming with balled-up fists and ill intent and you better be ready for that. Penn State certainly wasn’t.

“Any successful offense, you go to any program in America, you have to have a dominant offensive line,” McCarthy said. “You don’t see any Air Raid offenses win the national title. It’s where it’s done, in the trenches and that’s where the battle is won. That is all about the gritty way of playing football, the blue-collar way and I am just happy to be a part of it.

“It’s going to prepare me for the NFL and it wins ball games. So I’m all for that.”

McCarthy and others say they willingly joined a Wolverines program that felt stalled out under the belief they could raise it up. The 2021 season was a breakthrough. They are back for more though.

“Last year we built the foundation,” defensive lineman Mike Morris said. “Now we’re building our mansion.”

The Wolverines will be underdogs in Columbus at the end of the season. They would be underdogs in any playoff game if they can get there. No matter.

They’re coming ready for the fight, the way Bo did it and the way, maybe once again, it can still be done.