Who's laughing now? Jim Harbaugh's Michigan team is now the bully in rivalry with Ohio State

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh (right), talks with quarterback J.J. McCarthy prior to a matchup against Ohio State on Nov. 26, 2022, at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — He talks weird. He acts weird. He sometimes dresses weird. He’s an easy punchline, or was, especially back when his Michigan teams couldn’t beat Ohio State to save his football life.

Remember when Jim Harbaugh was supposedly the most overpaid coach in America? Remember when there were calls for Michigan to fire the guy after a miserable two-win season in 2020 and five consecutive loss to the Buckeyes?

Or maybe no one can recall any of that because of the distracting “Let’s Go Blue” chants echoing through a fast-emptying Ohio Stadium on Saturday as the Wolverines knelt out a 45-23 statement of a victory here.

Michigan is 12-0, headed to another Big Ten title game and likely the College Football Playoff again after it. It just manhandled a more talented Buckeye club that spent a year swearing this time would be different.

They even spent $1.9 million on defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to assure it. They got torched anyway.

This is still the Big Ten, still the Midwest and even on an unseasonably sunny afternoon, The Game was won with force and fight, not flair and fashion. For all the future NFL players in scarlet and gray, it was like Woody Hayes wouldn’t recognize the place.

“You could feel their will break,” said Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett. “They haven’t been used to getting hit or being as physical as we came to play and you could just feel it go out of them.”

The words have to sting here, in part because they are true and in part because this is a proud program that once prided itself in doing such things to others and in part because Jim Harbaugh — Jim Freakin’ Harbaugh — who they nearly drove a stake through his career, came back from the coaching brink to do this to them.

Harbaugh runs this series now. He runs the Big Ten by going old school, playing bully ball and punishing a Buckeye program that doesn’t seem willing to sustain the fight, let alone tackle in the open field.

The second half here was the most Harbaugh half of football that has ever been played. A Michigan team trailing 20-17 at the break walked onto the field full of confidence because it sensed weakness. It was like he had them right where he wanted them.

“Coach Harbaugh just said, ‘Let’s go finish, we’re a second-half team,’” said Wolverines defensive back Mike Sainristil.

Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett celebrates with the University of Michigan flag after beating Ohio State at Ohio Stadium on November 26, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)
Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett celebrates with the University of Michigan flag after beating Ohio State at Ohio Stadium on November 26, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)

Just like that, the Wolverine offensive line started pushing people around. Michigan had 11 rushing yards in the first half and 241 in the second, despite missing their best back, Blake Corum, with an injury. “One good thing about the run game, it can wear on you,” Harbaugh said.

Meanwhile, the defense stiffened and got stops. Michigan forced three punts and two interceptions and outscored Ohio State 28-3 after the break. As the Buckeyes buckled, they came unglued. There were two dumb unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, bad play calls and scared fourth-down decisions by Ohio State coach Ryan Day.

It was decisive. It was demoralizing.

“They don’t make the College Football Playoff, not after this,” shouted one person with the Michigan program after the game, and yeah, he was right; the result was so emphatic that there isn't much of an argument to be made.

As much as there were big plays — “too many” Day noted — it was a 15-play, 80 yard, 7:58 Michigan touchdown drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters that truly sucked the life out of the entire place. Hard runs. Clever passes. Even a trick play.

“We looked over at their sideline and they were hanging their heads a bit,” Sainristil said. “We said, 'Let’s keep pounding them.'"

Michigan picked apart the supposedly rebuilt Buckeye defense with touchdown passes of 45, 69 and 75 yards. J.J. McCarthy, who hadn’t done much through the air all year, was suddenly hitting wide open wideouts and a team that needed four field goals to beat Illinois a week ago just kept racing all over the place.

Then they popped touchdown runs of 75 and 85 by Donovan Edwards.

Reporter: Donovan, what was it like on that long touchdown run?

Edwards: Which one?

Oh, this was an emasculation, a show of force, a proof of concept that made it clear last year's 42-27 Michigan win was no fluke, no special confluence of bad weather and some brutish Michigan pass rushers. This was even worse, even rougher. There are no excuses.

Last year, Harbaugh implied that Ryan Day, by getting handed a juggernaut program, had been born on third base yet thought he had hit a triple. He didn’t need to talk any smack this time. The Buckeyes are 0-2 since Day reportedly said he wanted to score 100 on Michigan.

If anything, he just stole second.

Day has questions to answer and they will ring out across the offseason. This Buckeyes roster is loaded, but all the pyrotechnics against Indiana and Iowa doesn’t mean much against Michigan, especially as the game slipped away during a four-drive, four-punt stretch.

Day’s unwillingness to go for it on fourth down — he later cited field position — caused particular frustration among the fans. If you don’t think a coach with a 45-5 record can get roasted and put on a hot seat, then you’ve never read a Buckeyes message board.

Maybe Ohio State was built for the playoffs, capable of challenging the speed of the SEC, but you can’t find out if you never get there.

Harbaugh is almost assuredly headed there again, and this time might avoid an SEC power in the semifinals.

That's the future. He was living in the present on Saturday, beaming about his “locker room full of heroes” and pointing all praise to his players. The plan, he said, had come to fruition.

This was the program he came back from the NFL to build and it is built. Family business, including returning this rivalry to a real rivalry, has been settled.

“It feels good to sing ‘The Victors’ in Columbus,” he noted of something that hadn't been done since 2000.

No one’s laughing at Jim Harbaugh anymore. Especially here, especially now.