EAST LANSING, Mich. — Go ahead, question Michigan’s integrity.
Accuse Jim Harbaugh of disregarding the NCAA rulebook. Cry foul about sign-stealing or analysts overstepping their bounds. Root for the Big Ten’s cockiest program to get its comeuppance. The Wolverines have made one thing abundantly clear: They. Do. Not. Care.
“You see it all over social media,” right guard Zak Zinter said. “People are throwing different stuff at us, NCAA, whatever. They can claim and do whatever, say whatever. We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
What they’re doing is demolishing every Big Ten team in their path. No. 2 Michigan (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) did it again Saturday night, shellacking Michigan State 49-0 after another week shrouded in controversy.
News broke two days earlier that the NCAA was investigating Michigan for potential violations of a rule banning in-person scouting of future opponents. Friday afternoon, Michigan suspended recruiting analyst Connor Stalions, a staffer known for his sign-stealing prowess.
Apparently Stalions was not essential to Michigan’s success. The Wolverines still have J.J. McCarthy and one of the best defenses in the FBS, and that was more than enough to overwhelm Michigan State. Like every opponent before them, the Spartans ran into Michigan and didn’t stand a chance.
“They were a real buzzsaw,” Harbaugh said.
The Wolverines haven’t made a lot of friends around the Big Ten while winning 20 consecutive conference games. Teams that suspected something fishy about Michigan’s sign-stealing operation surely felt some satisfaction when news of the NCAA investigation went public.
Michigan investigation: Explaining CFB’s sign-stealing rules, what’s next for Harbaugh
Some of that is sour grapes. Some is, no doubt, a reaction to the way Michigan carries itself as a program. For a team that prides itself on doing things the right way, Michigan seems to end up in the middle of a lot of controversies. The program has a bullseye on its back, both from its Big Ten rivals and the NCAA.
“There’s a target, yeah,” Harbaugh said. “Everybody’s pointed that out from the beginning of the season. Our guys are just very focused. They just go about their business.”
It’s going to take more than an investigation or three to take down Michigan. The Wolverines play through investigations the way other teams play through sprained ankles. It just doesn’t faze them.
Michigan was already under investigation for alleged Level II violations that included impermissible contact with recruits during the COVID-19 dead period and impermissible use of analysts for on-field coaching. Harbaugh was accused of failing to cooperate with the investigation and served a three-game school-imposed suspension to start the season.
That was after co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss was fired for cause in January amid a police investigation of suspicious computer activity at Schembechler Hall. Now the program faces another NCAA investigation tied to alleged violations of the in-person scouting rule.
Debating the ethics of in-person scouting is like debating the ethics of pass interference: Ethical or not, it’s against the rules, and that’s what matters. If the Wolverines broke rules involving in-person scouting or video recording, they should be punished. If Harbaugh knew of such violations — and he says he didn’t — he should be held accountable.
Neither Michigan nor the NCAA deserves the benefit of the doubt here. Both have shown themselves to be fallible in various ways. The NCAA has the burden to prove its case, either through video evidence or written communications. People are rightfully skeptical of the NCAA’s ability to administer justice. Just look at the Kansas basketball investigation, which lasted six years and ended with hardly a whimper.
Even if these investigations don’t end with meaningful sanctions, they suck up time and resources. They cast a cloud of suspicion over the people and programs involved. They tarnish reputations and diminish achievements.
Months or years may pass before the full story emerges. In the meantime, Michigan has games to play and another Big Ten championship to chase. The Wolverines are adept at ignoring allegations and innuendo, possibly because they’ve had so much practice.
“All the outside distraction, the allegations against Coach Harbaugh, that doesn’t do anything to us,” McCarthy said. “We’re just out there trying to play ball and have fun with our boys. We just keep it very simple.”
This week was already emotionally fraught after last year’s game against Michigan State ended with a violent scene in the Michigan Stadium tunnel. Two players from Michigan were injured in that confrontation, including cornerback Ja’Den McBurrows, who had the first interception of his career in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game. Leading up to the game, the Wolverines claimed they weren’t talking about the tunnel. After McBurrows made that interception, they acknowledged that, yes, it might have come up a time or two.
“I know how he felt,” said defensive back Mike Sainristil, who had his second pick-six of the season. “I felt it, too. I was so happy for him. All week he was talking about different things. He mentioned what happened last year a couple different times. Coaches and us as players told him, ‘When you get your chance, just go out there and make the plays.’”
When Michigan went to halftime with a 28-0 lead, Harbaugh told the Wolverines to “leave no doubt.” That was a response to blowing a lead in their last trip to Michigan State, McCarthy said, and not any attempt to prove a point about the sign-stealing allegations.
Even if they weren’t trying to, the Wolverines sent a message. They outscored their first seven opponents 93-0 in the third quarter, a stat that was cited after the sign-stealing allegations surfaced. Is Michigan that good at halftime adjustments? Or, perhaps, are the Wolverines benefiting from some unfair advantage?
The third-quarter scoring margin is 107-0 after Saturday’s game. Any Michigan State fans hoping the Wolverines would crumble without the aid of their sign-stealing network went home sorely disappointed.
“Put all that stuff aside: We’re taking our 11 against anybody else’s 11 in the country on offense, defense and special teams,” tight end AJ Barner said.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a team anywhere in the country that’s playing better than Michigan. Six people on The Athletic’s eight-person panel picked Michigan to win the national championship, and the Wolverines certainly looked the part again Saturday night.
Investigations aside, the Wolverines are running roughshod over the rest of the Big Ten. And they’re going to keep doing it until somebody stops them.
(Top photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty)