Jim Harbaugh, perhaps the most energized man in Michigan football history, raced out with his team on Saturday, but unlike the players he did not leap to touch the giant blue banner.
He was saving those moves for later.
Oh, he had plenty of them at Michigan Stadium. Spinning, screaming, gesturing, imploring, even mock drop-kicking. Much of this was due to the referees’ calls, some of it was due to the Wolverines’ mistakes and the rest of it was due to Harbaugh being the Energizer Bunny’s role model.
But there is no doubt Michigan fans drew a happy breath at the start of this home opener, just seeing Harbaugh’s face on their sideline. They drew another happy breath when the final whistle sounded. Because the game, which began shakily, was won in convincing fashion, 35-7 over Oregon State, giving the new coach his first official victory at the helm of his alma mater.
The Maize and Blue faithful hope it’s a “Harbaunger” of things to come. But even after the victory, this you can say for sure:
The new coach has arrived.
His team is still en route.
No time like the present
“I want to thank Jim Hackett for this beautiful watch he gave me,” Harbaugh joked, sporting a bright yellow timepiece in the postgame news conference. “I never got a gift before after a game.”
The watch was something Hackett, U-M’s interim athletic director, kept showing Harbaugh during the summer, promising he would give it to him when he actually won his first game at Michigan — a colorful reminder that hype is hype but progress, in Ann Arbor, is measured in victories.
Saturday was the first.
Hopefully not the easiest.
Because the Wolverines were tested early on in the afternoon. The opening drive saw them a step behind a dashing Oregon State, which drove 79 yards for a touchdown without ever needing a third down. By the end of the first quarter, the Beavers had outrushed, outpassed and outscored the Wolverines, a 141/2-point favorite, 7-3.
But the tides turned. Michigan cobbled together a long second-quarter drive, saw it nearly derailed on an offensive pass interference call, then converted a fourth-and-5 on a steady, heady play by quarterback Jake Rudock, who waited until he found De’Veon Smith (“I’m the last option on that play,” Smith laughed) for 20 yards. Two Smith rushes later, Michigan was ahead for good.
It helped that minutes after that, Oregon State stepped on its own tail, drawing a flag on a great punt, repeating the process and snapping the ball so far over the punter’s head it needed landing gear. Recovery was made on the Beavers’ 3 and moments later, Michigan was up, 17-7.
“Very fortuitous,” Harbaugh called that moment. But he didn’t laugh. He didn’t gloat. He never took the bait on questions about his feelings or his nostalgia after his first victory at Michigan, continuously deflecting with comments about being “a small part” of a big thing, being pleased with a good week of practice, being happy for the kids, happy with improvement, on and on.
“I like the way our team came back” from the loss at Utah, he said, adding the attitude from Monday was “let’s darn sure not let that happen again.”
Maybe not those exact words.
Sure beats the opener
“Great team win. … I’m very pleased,” Harbaugh said. “I thought this game was won with the week of practice.”
And indeed, the Wolverines seemed to fix the clanking from their Sept. 3 trip to Utah. The defense was stingy after the first quarter, Rudock was much more in control (only one late pick, versus three last time), the running game was back with a vengeance (Smith had 126 yards and three touchdowns) and the offensive line was powerful (“holes a bus could drive through,” Smith said).
But remember, Oregon State is a weaker shadow of Michigan. New coach after a losing season, new system, new freshman quarterback playing in his first road game. There were times early on when that young quarterback, Seth Collins, seemed to be toying with the U-M defense, running and passing at will. The Wolverines clamped down. Doing that against Michigan State’s Connor Cook or Ohio State’s Cardale Jones will be much harder.
But that’s way in the future. The New Wolverines are officially on the board, Hackett’s wrist is lighter and Harbaugh has a bright yellow reminder of what counts in Ann Arbor.
“You used to do interviews, back in the days,” he said, looking at the watch, “and you’d get a pair of Florsheim shoes.”
He could use those as well. Michigan still has miles to go before it rests.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.