Undaunted through early tests, Michigan still not satisfied with torrid start

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MADISON, Wis. — Death, taxes, and Michigan football excelling early before falling apart late — these things have become sureties in life.

In recent memory, we’ve seen even bad Michigan teams thrive in the early going. Twice, Rich Rodriguez started 4-0 before ultimately falling apart in Big Ten play. The 2013 team led by Brady Hoke celebrated a big Week 2 win over Notre Dame before falling off a cliff, really starting the next week when it held on to beat lowly Akron. Just last year, Michigan opened the season with an emphatic win over Minnesota, garnering national praise following a thorough and methodical domination of the Gophers, before it fell apart the next week, en route to a 2-4 campaign.

From the outside looking in, these Wolverines have, by and large, been soft. The 2015 and 2016 teams being outliers, at the first sign of adversity, oftentimes the maize and blue would fold. But the 2021 team, one that no one believed in before the season, starting unranked in all of the polls and only climbing in at No. 25 once it took down Washington in Week 2, isn’t letting the past define it.

So, even though it appeared on paper that the 4-0 Wolverines should be able to come into Madison and dominate 1-2 Wisconsin, the national story remained: Michigan hadn’t beaten the Badgers in Camp Randall since 2001.

Wisconsin was favored, despite its only win coming against fellow Washtenaw County compatriot Eastern Michigan. Michigan showed little against Rutgers, jumping out to a 20-3 lead before sputtering in the second half, holding on to win 20-13. This was to be the first road game and if the maize and blue wanted some respect, it was going to have to go into hostile territory and pry it from the Badgers’ cold, dead hands.

And that’s exactly what it did. Even after an early 10-point lead was cut to three just before the half, there was a different resolve by these Wolverines. They took some hits, but they hit back harder, emerging with a 38-17 win that wasn’t even that close.

“The last few years, we’ve done enough flinching, so by the time (this season came) we didn’t want to feel that way anymore,” safety Daxton Hill said. “Come in, do whatever we have to do to win, and stop the entire team. That’s what we did.”

“Overall, this team has been through a lot,” quarterback Cade McNamara said. “There’s a lot of guys that were young two years ago that gained a lot of experience — not even play. And I think we’ve taken control this year and we made the change that we want to be different. We know that it’s not gonna be easy to be different. But, so far, what you’re seeing right now is just a reflection of what we’ve preached, everything we’ve tried to make a difference for in the offseason.”

Now at 5-0 and heading into another winnable road game in a daunting environment in Nebraska this next week, you’d think that Michigan would at least feel like it’s accomplished something. Getting the first win at Wisconsin in 20 years is certainly a laudable achievement, regardless of what the Badgers have done to date or what they’ll do next. This is also the first time since 2016 that the Wolverines have won the first five games of the season — that year, they won the first nine before stumbling at Iowa en route to a 10-3 finish.

But no, the players refuse to acknowledge their achievements thus far. Because what matters isn’t each game in and of itself as much as the cumulative won-loss numbers at the end of the season. And in order for this team to reach its goals, the former must be much, much bigger than the latter.

“We can’t think that way,” Ojabo said. “We have big goals. You can’t come one game and get all complacent because we have, what? Six, seven left? So it’s day-by-day, week-by-week. We can’t be high-fiving each other thinking we won a championship or something. We haven’t done nothing yet.”

Wide receiver Cornelius Johnson concurs.

You can say what you want about Wisconsin this year, but it’s had a brutal schedule thus far. Three ranked opponents in four weeks, which included a tight, close season opener against Penn State, a game that got away from it in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame at Soldier Field in Chicago, and now this one.

Had Michigan entered the game on Saturday feeling like it was the bigger, badder team and hoping that the Badgers would lay down — like we’ve seen some previous iterations of the maize and blue do — Wisconsin could be a respectable 2-2 right now rather than 1-3, and the narrative would return to how the Wolverines can’t do anything against a team with teeth. So they entered this contest not thinking about how good they can be, instead taking each week at a time, each day at a time, each drive at a time, each play and snap at a time.

And that method is paying off.

“We have a lot of respect for the Wisconsin program,” Johnson said. “They’re always a tough team to come in, especially on the road with fans now, with however many fans they had. There was definitely something where we were stacking days. Like David said — it’s day-by-day and we want to make sure going into our next opponent and our opponent after that, we’re getting better. Because if we go in and dissect the film, we can see a lot of corrections we can do as a team, score more points, stop them on defense. Stuff like that. We’ve really gotta make sure we go in there and nitpick, make sure we improve and not get too complacent at the moment.”

The Wolverines cannot celebrate even for a moment. Up next is a night game at Nebraska, a team that’s 3-3 on the season, but is particularly dangerous on offense if it can keep out of its own way. That game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday and will be nationally televised on ABC.

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