In the days before he watched Michigan run all over his Northern Illinois football team, Thomas Hammock knew what to expect. The offensive schemes, the motion, the execution — he’d seen something like it not long ago.
“Michigan is running a lot of plays that I’m very familiar with, a lot of plays that we ran in Baltimore,” said Hammock, whom NIU hired as head coach in 2019 after he’d spent five years as the Ravens’ running backs coach. “Obviously, Coach Harbaugh went back to his roots.”
Knowing John Harbaugh couldn’t help Hammock stop Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines, though. Michigan rushed for 373 yards and held the Huskies to 208 total yards of offense in a 63-10 win Saturday in Ann Arbor, its third blowout victory in as many games to open the season.
Every week, the resurgent Wolverines look more and more like one of Ohio State’s biggest threats in a deep Big Ten Conference. Their swift ascent up the national polls has been a surprise; Michigan, now ranked No. 19, started the season outside the top 25 after failing to make a bowl game for the first time since 2014.
That the Wolverines look more and more like the Ravens, however, is no surprise at all. Early in the offseason, Jim Harbaugh hired Ravens linebackers coach Mike Macdonald as his defensive coordinator and Ravens running backs coach Matt Weiss as his quarterbacks coach. The pair reunited with former Ravens quality-control coach Jay Harbaugh, Jim’s son and now Michigan’s tight ends coach and special teams coordinator.
The Wolverines’ makeover is still missing a Lamar Jackson-like talent at quarterback, of course. But when the Ravens head to Detroit this weekend for Sunday’s game against the Lions, they’ll be just a 45-minute drive Saturday from Michigan Stadium, where Michigan will test Rutgers with the nation’s leading rushing attack and one of its most efficient defenses.
On Monday, a local reporter asked Jim Harbaugh how much his program mirrored his brother’s team in Baltimore. “Quite a bit,” he said. “Quite a bit, really. In almost all ways. Offensive philosophy, defensive philosophy, special teams philosophy. … There’s a lot of similarities. We strive to have similarities with the Ravens.”
It’s most obvious in how their offenses attack. After wins over Western Michigan, Washington and Northern Illinois, Michigan is averaging an NCAA-best 350.3 rushing yards per game, nearly 15 yards more than second-place Florida. The Wolverines are also No. 4 in yards per carry (7.2). Perhaps appropriately, their leading rusher comes from Baltimore; sophomore running back Blake Corum was a four-star recruit at St. Frances under coach Biff Poggi, who himself left for Michigan in July.
One of Corum’s longest runs Saturday had all the hallmarks of a play ripped right out of Greg Roman’s playbook. In the first quarter, after some presnap motion, he took a pistol handoff from quarterback Cade McNamara, followed a pulling tackle and tight end and rumbled upfield for an easy 16 yards.
Jon Jansen, a former Michigan and NFL offensive lineman who now works on the Wolverines’ radio broadcast team, said the Wolverines haven’t made “wholesale changes” under third-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. But he noted “little tweaks in how you sell it from the offensive line perspective … the way that you sell it from the running back position, making sure that you take enough steps, and the ball-handling skills, just some tweaks here and there. You can definitely see the influence that Matt Weiss has had.”
On defense, Michigan ranks eighth nationally in ESPN’s SP+ rankings, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency. Macdonald, who has compared his scheme to that of the Ravens’ Don “Wink” Martindale, told reporters before the season that his defense would try to “create complexity to an offense, really try to make it a living nightmare.”
“So much of the offensive style in college has, over the last few years, trickled up to the NFL,” Jansen said. “And one of the great defenses that the NFL has had over the past decade to two decades has been the Baltimore Ravens. So to be able to bring that knowledge and that experience and the ability to stop some of these offenses has been a clear asset in the way that Michigan has started this year.”
The Ravens transplants have brought more than schemes. In Baltimore, Weiss served as the team’s football strategy coordinator, where he used analytics to help drive in-game decisions and script situational practice periods. In Michigan, the Wolverines have embraced his expertise, Jansen said, changing how they “streamline” their decision-making process.
Culturally, too, there’s carryover. At a preseason news conference, Weiss wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “CHASE THE LION” — the same Bible-inspired slogan John Harbaugh adopted for the Ravens’ breakthrough 2018 season.
They’ve shared scouting notes as well. The Ravens have drafted four Michigan players in Jim Harbaugh’s six-plus years as Wolverines coach, most recently guard Ben Bredeson and fullback Ben Mason.
“Baltimore is an organization built upon respect,” Macdonald said in August. “That’s the first thing John Harbaugh will tell you walking in the door. My first day as an intern in 2014, [then-general manager] Ozzie Newsome — the legendary Ozzie Newsome — was walking down the hall and he knew my name as a first-day intern. You’re just like, ‘OK, this is how you’re supposed to do it.’ … There’s a lot of parallels here.”
As the Ravens prepare for Week 3, John Harbaugh isn’t looking ahead — not past the winless Lions, and not past undefeated Rutgers, either. “They got a big one this week,” Harbaugh said Wednesday of the Wolverines, his other football family.
“Those guys are really good coaches,” he said. “I think they’ve had a big influence. They’ve got a lot of great coaches there already, but yeah, we’re proud of those guys. And we root for them.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 8