After turning 'two percent' into a title, Harbaugh and Michigan are back

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Michigan got a break, and then slowly broke Iowa. It was a methodical mauling, a dagger here, a dagger there, a few gashes for good measure. By the end of it, the Wolverines stood alone in the Big Ten for the first time since 2004, a vision seven years in the making under Jim Harbaugh. And now another one forming: national champs.

Blow by blow, the Wolverines beat the spirit out of the Hawkeyes, 42-3 Saturday night in Indy. And to think, the Wolverines were out of spirit a year ago. So was Harbaugh, or so it seemed. He had his salary sliced in half with the program sliding, a public humbling. What a turnaround for Michigan, 2-4 to 12-1, embarrassed to emboldened. The players left the field at Lucas Oil Stadium reciting the words 'two percent,' their odds this season of winning the Big Ten.

"That was the preseason prediction," said senior O-lineman and co-captain Andrew Vastardis. "We believe in each other, we believe in ourselves, but there’s always a little external motivation. Sometimes some of the stuff that’s out there, it’s fuel for the fire."

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Since its inception in 2014, 28 teams have made the College Football Playoff. Michigan is about to become the first to do so coming off a sub-.500 season — and the first to do so as an unranked team in the preseason top 25. It’s a huge credit to Harbaugh and his revamped coaching staff. They believed in these players when no one else did, and the players believed in each other. They're like-minded football rats with more skill than meets the eye.

"Their mental health is great because they give it their very best everyday, and therefore they don’t have guilt," said Harbaugh. "They don’t have regret. I think a lot of people that don't give it their very best have guilt about that. Not these guys."

There’s no player in the country better than Aidan Hutchinson. The defensive player of the year in the Big Ten was also named MVP Saturday night, the engine of a defense that flattened the Hawkeyes and the recipient of 'Hutch for Heisman!' chants from his teammates. Michigan ranked 95th in the nation last year in scoring defense. It ranked eighth when Saturday began under first-year DC Mike Macdonald, and then it raised the bar higher.

The Hawkeyes wanted to run it and couldn’t. They tried to pass it and punted. They spent most of the game going nowhere, except for their first drive when they drove deep into Michigan territory, missed an easy touchdown on an otherwise perfectly-executed trick play and then shanked a chip shot field goal. Michigan reached the end zone four plays later thanks to a 67-yard touchdown dash by Blake Corum and never looked back. It was 14-3 at the half, close but not that close, and then a bloodbath that spawned a Gatorade bath for Harbaugh.

"I remember the predictions," said Hutchinson. "We defied all expectations. Nobody thought we could ever do this, especially not this season. But we did it and we did it in very dominant fashion."

There’s no offensive line in the country better than Michigan’s. A week after bullying the Buckeyes, the Wolverines slowly but surely broke down the Hawkeyes. They wound up rushing for at least 200 yards for the seventh time this season against one of the best rushing defenses in the country, led by Hassan Haskins and his two touchdowns. He has 20 on the season, a Michigan record. There's no running back in the country with more.

The Wolverines also ranked 95th in the nation last year in rushing offense. They rank ninth this year, with Harbaugh and OC Josh Gattis bringing the program back to its roots. Michigan has rediscovered the identity it lost. Corum said it started with "commitment from both sides, Coach Gat and then us believing in him."

"He committed to the run game early. He said last year he didn’t really focus on the run game, but he’s been a tremendous play-caller (this year)," Corum said.

There was no quarterback in the country under more scrutiny this season than Cade McNamara. Every throw felt like a referendum on his future -- and on the future of this team. The feeling for most of the year was that Michigan wouldn't get here with McNamara, but here they are. He was good when he needed to be on Saturday after a first-half interception. He never carried this team, but he did carry the Big Ten trophy into the interview room after the game.

"The physicality of this offense I think is the greatest attribute," he said, and then Corum shook his head and laughed in agreement: "It's crazy."

"Toughness is something that we take to heart," McNamara went on. "I love the identity we've created, no matter what the style of football is in this day and age."

Everything feels possible again for Michigan football. The vigor Harbaugh arrived with in 2015 is back. He beamed on the field during his post-game interview and belted to the crowd, "GO BLUE!" It was uninhibited and unapologetic, like the mantra that melted into a punchline after the 2016 season: "Who's got it better than us!?" No one in the Big Ten has it as good as Michigan right now, and the country might be next. Harbaugh and his Wolverines are back.

"Last season was so tough, not just for us players but for Coach Harbaugh as well," said McNamara. "We know there’s not one person who cares more about Michigan than Coach Harbaugh. This team, we came together. We want to win for Coach Harbaugh, too. We’re just so happy we were able to give him that joy, because he deserves it."