Michigan got the tough win it wanted (and needed), setting the tone for the final title fight

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – You might not believe it, but the Michigan football team wanted that pressure on Saturday.

The Wolverines spent all winter, spring, and summer beaming with pride at how hard their training was; how fearless physically a team could be; don’t flinch when others do it. Jim Harbaugh spent years compiling a coaching staff and a list that preferred winning by any means to any stats, praise or accolades.

“Our identity is shattered,” second quarterback and former five-star recruit JJ McCarthy said with a grin Saturday afternoon.

So once Michigan fielded a team specifically designed to handle the belly punches of a Big Ten season, the rest of the league naturally clenched their fists.

The Wolverines, of course, kept their mindset. But all season, the stomach upsets have been less of a threat to Michigan’s stomachs than eating some spicy cheese. The Wolverines enjoyed not flinching in front of a large Iowa crowd and still built a 20-0 lead before Iowa even gave its fans a reason to get loud. The next week, the Wolverines had some emotional adversity when running backs coach Mike Hart was carted off the sidelines after collapsing, but Michigan learned Hart would be okay at halftime and then surpassed Indiana 21-0 in the second half.

From there, Michigan fell into a pattern with their opponents where teams battled for two quarters, but no one could last the rest of the way with Michigan’s physical playstyle. It beat Penn State, 25-3 in the second half, then Michigan State, 16-0. It was 38-0 at Rutgers and “only” 17-0 against Nebraska.

The Wolverines, of course, got it right and marched to their fourth 11-0 start in the last 100 years. But Michigan relished the role of a brave team in 2021, and this fall, the tight calls, gut punches, nail biters and crunching wins were nowhere to be found. Michigan won its first 10 games by averaging more than 30 points, with just a garbage-time touchdown by Maryland keeping every game in double digits.

The Wolverines’ opponents couldn’t even get a draw in the fourth quarter of a game, let alone take the lead.

“The amount of work that we’ve put in, it almost sucks sometimes when you win with a bunch and you can’t play the full four quarters,” senior wide receiver Ronnie Bell said Saturday.

Mentally, Michigan hadn’t even broken a sweat in games. And with a Columbus date looming, it wasn’t clear if the Wolverines would even get a chance to see how they respond to late-game pressure and adversity before it traveled to what may be the biggest pressure cooker in college football right now.

Enter Illinois.

(This story continues below.)