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Michigan football: 2021 season in review

Wolverines football program went from 2 percent chance to win division to No. 2 in nation

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh celebrates with his team after the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game against Iowa, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Indianapolis. Michigan won 42-3. (AJ Mast, The Associated Press 2021)

MIAMI, Fla. – The Georgia Bulldogs shattered the glass slipper of the Michigan Wolverines’ Cinderella season with a 34-11 demolition on New Year’s Eve in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl inside Hard Rock Stadium.

Although the Michigan faithful may be disappointed, the journey of the 2021 season will leave fond memories. A much as fans try to suppress the pain of losing on the final day of 2021, how about celebrating a 12-2 season, overcoming the 10-year OSU stranglehold, Big Ten Championships, a Heisman runner-up, and two Coach of the Year recipients?

Expectations exceeded

For starters, nobody had the Wolverines as the lone representative of the Big Ten Conference in the CFP. If we’re being honest, after the debacle of the 2-4 pandemic shortened season everyone was pretty sure they weren’t a candidate to come out of the East Division.

Michigan was almost 1-5, but Rutgers kicker shanked a game-winning 45-yard field goal in overtime. For hypothetical purposes, if that kick goes through the uprights, future AP Coach of the year Jim Harbaugh is probably fired.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh watches the scoreboard during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Indiana, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, but Harbaugh did come into the season with a healthy $4 million pay cut. You don’t cut someone’s pay if they perform well at their job.

Critics will have views of how one should lead. Although quirky at times, Harbaugh has proved this season why the Wolverines are “the leaders and best.”

Michigan tight end Luke Schoonmaker (86) celebrates with teammates at the end of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game against Iowa, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Indianapolis. Michigan won 42-3. (The Associated Press 2021)

Thanks to that poor 2020 season, the Football Power Index gave the Wolverines a 2 percent chance to win the division.

To make matters worse, Michigan lost their best offensive player in wide receiver Ronnie Bell to a knee injury in the first game of the year.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, left, watches pregame warmups alongside wide receiver Ronnie Bell (8) before an NCAA college football game against Rutgers in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. (The Associated Press 2021)

The Wolverines rattled off four wins in a row that included a 20-13 home rematch vs. the aforementioned Scarlet Knights, a game in which they completed one pass in the second half.

The lackluster passing game brought on more unwanted noise from the media, who were questioning the Wolverines unbeaten record and if they would be able to stay undefeated after a road trip to Madison to face the Wisconsin Badgers.

Offensive coordinator and Broyles Award-winning assistant Josh Gattis made his name well known in this game. The formally unranked to now 14th-ranked Wolverines’ trickeration proved to be too much as they routed the Badgers 38-17 to improve to 5-0.

Christian Turner #3 of the Michigan Wolverines celebrates his third quarter touchdown with offensive coordinator Josh Gattis while playing the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Michigan Stadium on September 28, 2019 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Jumping from 14 to inside the top 10 was huge when Michigan faced another test against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, coming from behind in Clint Eastwood-like fashion, per Harbaugh.

“I think Michigan teams in the past lose this game,” said QB Cade McNamara. “The coaches have made a commitment to make this year different.”

Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara greets fans as he exits the field after the second half of an NCAA college football game against Ohio State, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Stumbling in East Lansing

After boat racing Northwestern 33-7, the Wolverines went into Spartan Stadium fully confident but fell short thanks to Kenneth Walker III. He ran all over the defense of future Heisman runner-up Aidan Hutchinson.

Heisman trophy finalist, from left, Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett, Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young stand for a photo with the Heisman Trophy before attending the award ceremony, Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

After the game, a stunned Harbaugh told reporters: “We are going to have to learn from it and strengthen our resolve.”

“I think we are still in contention,” said Hutchinson. “We still got all of our goals ahead of us.”

That loss sparked the rumor mill for Harbaugh as the Wolverines choked the game away to the rival Spartans. This game resembled ones in years where the Wolverines couldn’t win big games against rivals.

Michigan quieted the noise a little after demolishing the Indiana Hoosiers, 29-7.

A trip to happy valley was next for the one-loss Wolverines, who squeaked by the Penn State Nittany Lions thanks to tight end Erick All and his mesh route to the house for six.

Michigan tight end Erick All (83) sprints to the end zone to score on a 47-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter against Penn State during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. Michigan defeated Penn State 21-17. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

A 59-18 drumming over the Maryland Terrapins ultimately became the coming-out party for freshman Donovan Edwards who had 10 receptions for 170 yards and a touchdown.

Finally beating Ohio State

In the final game of the regular season, Michigan welcomed hated rival Ohio State to the Big House, where they finally defeated the Buckeyes 42-27 thanks in part to Hassan Haskins five-touchdown performance, Hutchinson and his school-record 14th sack of the season, and fellow lineman David Ojabo who provided a clutch sack in the final moments of the game.

Michigan running back Hassan Haskins (25) celebrates a touchdown in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Ohio State in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Michigan won 42-27. (AP Photo/Tony Ding) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The victory propelled the Wolverines to their first-ever appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game. They dominated the Iowa Hawkeyes to capture their first title from start to finish. Hutchinson was so dominant that he was voted the first defensive player to win the MVP.


About the Author:

Brandon Carr is a digital content producer for ClickOnDetroit and has been with WDIV Local 4 since November 2021. Brandon is the 2015 Solomon Kinloch Humanitarian award recipient for Community Service.