STATE COLLEGE, Penn. — Angry. Everyone seems angry.
Maybe everyone is angry.
Michigan: angry. The Big Ten: angry too.
The other 12 Big Ten schools: very, very angry.
The sign-stealing saga has everyone quite ticked off. “Pissed,” said one Michigan player.
The Wolverines certainly played angry here. Mad, agitated, perturbed. During warmups, they wore shirts and hats emblazoned with a message: Michigan vs. Everybody. Some of them say they’re not motivated by the now-month-long sign-stealing ordeal, the chants toward them of “cheaters” here, or the suspension of their head football coach — announced while they were in-flight to State College.
Don’t fall for such claims. They are, in fact, angry.
In a speech to the team Friday night, unsure at the time whether he’d coach his crew against the Nittany Lions, Jim Harbaugh’s message was quite simple: Play angry.
“They did,” said interim coach Sherrone Moore.
Angry is embodied in virtually everything they did here Saturday afternoon — by far the Wolverines' toughest challenge of the 2023 season, a road game at a top-10 ranked team.
On defense, the Wolverines held Penn State to 170 yards of offense before a final drive in garbage time. On offense, the Wolverines ran for 227 yards, oppressively grinding their opponent in a way that produced one of the most stunning nuggets you’ll see in the modern era of the sport.
Michigan ended the game having run the ball on its final 32 consecutive snaps — a remarkable and quite unbelievable stretch that covered half of the second quarter, all of the third quarter and all of the fourth quarter. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s final, official pass came with 6 minutes, 14 seconds left in the second quarter of the game (he threw once in the second half, but a defensive pass interference penalty wiped out the play).
You can read that paragraph again if you’d like. You can watch it on replay if you don’t believe it.
To be sure, it was an angry display.
It was an “awesome” display as well, said road-paving lineman Trevor Keegan. “We put the team on our back,” he said.
Of that 32-snap streak, only about two or three were called passes. The Wolverines ran the ball on downs like second-and-17; third-and-10; first-and-15; third-and-6; second-and-12; third-and-10; third-and-11; and second-and-8.
On some of the runs, Michigan used seven linemen. The seven-man package is a wrinkle that coaches had in the playbook “for a while,” and Moore thought this the time to use it — to show the critics just how good the Wolverines are up front.
“They’ve taken a lot of ridicule,” Moore said. “People saying [we] haven’t run the ball well.”
But enough with the anger. Enough with the sign-stealing mess.
For a few seconds, wipe it from your mind. Erase it temporarily. There is something emerging here, something obvious to all who know football: Michigan is damn good.
The Wolverines are not good in the way that many teams in this offensively explosive era of college football are good. They are good in another way entirely.
They grind you to a pulp like they did Saturday night on a chilly scene in Happy Valley. There is an old-school way about them. A nostalgic team.
This feels like 1970s football in the 2020s.
They are the embodiment of an old coach’s clichés: They don’t beat themselves; they play to the whistle; they are fundamentally sound.
Michigan blocks and tackles you to hell and back. They swarm, hit and crush. They play mean, angry football. They’re not prancing about, dancing downfield in some pass-happy spread scheme.
There are few post routes, shot plays and four wides here. There are only tight ends, fullbacks and nasty offensive guards.
There is no smoke, nor are there mirrors. There is blood, and oh yes, bruises.
Michigan defies modern college football. It spits in its face.
This is Bo Schembechler’s Michigan of old reincarnated by a coach at the middle of two separate NCAA investigations, a man from a hard-nosed football family, an oddball in the coaching community who fans love to hate and other coaches love to criticize.
His suspension — for the remainder of the regular season, pending legal action — is a driving force for a team already filled with enough anger.
“I think about coach,” said Moore. “Love that man with all my heart. Wanted to do it for him.”
Harbaugh watched the game with his family at the team hotel, a Wyndham Garden situated on a golf course with scenic views of the Allegheny Mountains some seven miles from Beaver Stadium.
The Big Ten handed down a three-game suspension for the coach in an announcement made as the team flew here. Players learned of the suspension once they landed. But there was a chance, if an injunction was granted, that Harbaugh could coach on Saturday.
However, a Michigan circuit court delayed any decision until a hearing Friday — a day before the Wolverines' next game at Maryland and eight days before they are scheduled to host Ohio State.
Next Friday, at the Washtenaw County Circuit Court, the parties and their representatives are ordered to appear. The expectation is that Harbaugh will be present as well as Michigan administrators and those from the Big Ten.
The presiding judge, Timothy Connors, a Michigan law lecturer as it turns out, could make his ruling on the injunction — if Harbaugh can return or not — during the hearing. Or shortly afterward. Or maybe days later. No one really knows.
The judge can also request to hear from the parties before him, including Harbaugh’s attorneys and those from the Big Ten, each arguing against one another in an unusual and awkward juxtaposition: school vs. its own conference over the availability of its coach.
In the court of public opinion, debate rages onward: Was Michigan’s sign-stealing scheme really that significant of an advantage? Depends on whom you ask. Most college staffs practice decoding other teams’ signs the legal way: without recording equipment during a game or from television.
NCAA investigators found that Michigan’s scheme was incredibly elaborate. A low-level analyst, Connor Stalions, orchestrated an in-person scouting system that spanned multiple years, more than 50 games and as many as 65 known associates, according to the NCAA’s investigation.
The story has gripped college football. Coffee shops, bars and restaurants here buzzed this weekend with Stalions’ scheme.
It showed up on the field, too.
After its first touchdown, in fact, Penn State players celebrated with a sign-stealing re-enactment. One player looked through a pair of imaginary binoculars and another acted as if he was scribbling notes on a pad.
“Anything that comes at this team,” said McCarthy, “we’re going to use it to our advantage.”
In many respects, the university itself, one of the Big Ten’s historic establishments, has declared war on its own conference.
A prestigious place and one of the country’s football powers — 11 claimed national titles, 44 conference championships and three Heisman winners — Michigan, from its president down, has thrown verbal punches at Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti.
Everyone seems angry.
Just before kickoff Saturday, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel entered the fray with a stinging 370-word statement that eviscerated the Big Ten for its decision to suspend Harbaugh, describing the move as “completely unethical, insulting to a well-established process within the NCAA, and an assault on the rights of everyone.”
Afterward, during a celebratory postgame scene, the anger seemed to subside.
Running back Blake Corum spoke to reporters with a bloody gash between his eyes, smiling nonetheless; McCarthy sprinted off the field to a roaring road crowd lingering above the visiting locker room; Moore, the 37-year-old interim coach, wept somewhat uncontrollably; and in a celebratory locker room, players spoke to Harbaugh on FaceTime.
“He was a jolly good fellow,” McCarthy said.
So, in the end, after it all, everyone wasn’t angry.
Don’t worry. Soon, the rage will return.
“We know there is a target on our back right now,” Keegan said. “We love that s***.”