Jim Harbaugh and the MVPs shine for Michigan football in the win over Ohio State
RB Hassan Haskins: One of coach Jim Harbaugh’s go-to maneuvers during news conferences is to refrain from singling out players at certain position groups to avoid accusations of overlooking other contributors. Ask Harbaugh a question about a specific wide receiver, for example, and he’s likely to expand his answer by mentioning four or five wideouts. Ask him to describe the performance of a certain offensive lineman, and he’ll wind up discussing the entire group. For Harbaugh to label Haskins as the team’s offensive MVP during a season when another running back, Blake Corum, has 865 yards and 10 touchdowns speaks volumes about what the coaching staff thinks of its workhorse. Haskins turned in another sterling effort Saturday, carrying 28 times for 169 yards and five touchdowns to drain the will of Ohio State’s defense. He was responsible for 16 first downs while forcing only five missed tackles as he hammered across the line of scrimmage. In some respects, this team will go as far as Haskins can take them. “They might have thought they saw a ghost but they didn’t,” Harbaugh said. “It was No. 25, Hassan Haskins. He was running with great determination, great purpose, great ability. Five touchdowns on the day ties a school record. He will probably break the season touchdown record before it’s over held by Ron Johnson in 1968. This kind of gives you a glimpse of how good of a runner Hassan Haskins is.”
OLB Aidan Hutchinson: If Haskins is the offensive MVP, then Hutchinson is Michigan’s all-around MVP. It’s hard to capture exactly what Hutchinson means to this team, from his decision to return for another season, to his infectious work ethic, to the astounding motor week in and week out. That’s why offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said no single player has been more important to U-M’s turnaround than Hutchinson, who he considers a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. Harbaugh echoed those sentiments during his postgame news conference following a victory in which Hutchinson notched three more sacks to set a single-season U-M record with 12½. The performance was incredible. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald tasked Hutchinson with rushing QB C.J. Stroud 53 times Saturday; Hutchinson was credited with 15 pressures, an astonishing rate of 28.3%, according to Pro Football Focus. One of his sacks forced the Buckeyes to attempt a field goal when Stroud was hauled to the turf on third down. Another contributed to a drive that ended in a punt. “He really has it all,” right tackle Andrew Stueber said. “Being able to go out there and do what he does best just gives me pure joy. I know the struggles in camp of getting beat by him, and to see him do it to other tackles is just giving me straight joy. I love when he beats tackles on the edge. My favorite is when he bull-rushes (people) into the ground, which I think he did one play this game. I love seeing it. It’s great.”
CB Vincent Gray: Before the season, Gray was arguably the most outspoken defensive back on how grateful he was for the arrival of Macdonald, whose scheme introduced more variety than former coordinator Don Brown’s. Since then, Gray has been mostly quiet, with a steady but unremarkable campaign. He does not have an interception and he’s third among defensive backs in pass breakups. But Gray raised his level of play against OSU’s talented receiving corps to solidify half of the field for Macdonald, who entrusted DJ Turner on the other side. Gray was targeted six times in coverage of Garrett Wilson and five times in coverage of Chris Olave, according to PFF. He allowed just six receptions for 72 yards and held those players to -1 yards after the catch due in large part to his sold tackling. Five of his six stops against the Buckeyes were solo efforts. Gray’s coverage grade of 67.3 was the best among Michigan cornerbacks and his second-highest mark of the last eight games. He has allowed just one completion longer than 25 yards all season, a reflection of his commitment to defending deep passes better than he did a year ago, when Gray yielded an average of 20.4 yards per reception.
RB Blake Corum: Harbaugh has a special corner of his heart reserved for players willing to push through injuries, so the performance by Corum on Saturday surely won more of his coach’s affection. Returning for the first time since injuring his foot/ankle against Indiana, Corum chipped in six carries for 87 yards despite being clearly less than 100%. He entered late in the first quarter — after freshman Donovan Edwards had already been in — and gained five yards to delight the crowd, which heartily cheered his effort. Corum’s biggest contribution came on Michigan’s opening possession of the second half, when he ripped off a 13-yard gain on the first play and then gashed the Buckeyes for 55 yards on the next. He turned the corner around the left side of the line before cutting upfield and escaping down the right sideline before getting hauled down in the red zone. A healthy Corum almost certainly turns that play into a touchdown. Haskins finished off the drive with a 13-yard carry on the next snap. The drive covered 81 yards in three plays without anything through the air. Stueber believed it marked a turning point when the Buckeyes began to wilt. “We only ran the ball down the field,” Stueber said. “I think that’s when, from an O-line perspective, when you’re able to come out after halftime adjustments, having the time to see what they’re doing and be able to adjust, when you come out and you only run the ball and you take it down the field, it says something about their confidence in themselves. And I think that’s the first time they really faced adversity like that and we just continued to roll, continued to roll them and I think that’s the moment when you felt the tide shift from an offensive line perspective.”
Coach Jim Harbaugh: Five days before kickoff against Ohio State, wide receiver Mike Sainristil addressed the media inside Schembechler Hall. He was asked a question about Harbaugh’s renewed 2021 commitment, about the demeanor Harbaugh displays in the facility each week and the bonds with players. Sainristil told reporters Harbaugh was a great coach, a great human and that there’s nobody he’d rather take the field with Saturday to face the Buckeyes. Imagine how Sainristil is feeling now. Harbaugh scored the biggest win of his career by denying Ohio State with toughness, grit and ceaseless determination. That he did it on a snowy day at Michigan Stadium ensured his victory will be remembered for decades in Ann Arbor. Snapping the streak against the Buckeyes marked the culmination of wide-ranging changes Harbaugh made — and was forced to make — following an unsightly 2-4 record last season. So many of his decisions came up aces: from his trust in the recommendation from his brother John to hire Macdonald, to riding with quarterback Cade McNamara as his starter, to hiring a slew of younger assistant coaches, to finding ways to strengthen the buy-in of returning players. He deserves to be in the conversation for national coach of the year. “I’m so happy to be part of his first win and to have a top-5 game at home, getting the win, snowing, I mean, it was really like war out there,” Hutchinson said. “And I think he knew that. He understood that and I’m just so happy for him and our whole team.”
WR A.J. Henning: Yes, Henning reached the end zone on a beautifully designed reverse from Gattis, who had McNamara fake a swing pass toward the flat before handing the ball off on an end around. The 14-yard run gave Michigan an early lead fewer than five minutes into the game. But Henning’s issues with ball security on special teams should be a legitimate concern for coordinator Jay Harbaugh. Henning muffed a punt for the fourth time in the last seven games and was fortunate to recover it against Ohio State. He also has a fumble on offense in that seven-game span. To fumble five times in less than two months is a worrying trend. Recovering all five is something of a statistical anomaly. Eventually, the bounces won’t be so kind for Henning, who has fallen on most of his miscues this season. The Wolverines must think about how much they trust Henning in the return game against Iowa and, potentially, in the College Football Playoff. Are his explosive returns worth the risk of losing the ball in a critical moment?
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Aidan Hutchinson and Hassan Haskins are MVPs for Michigan football
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