Sigh, I’m sorry. I just can’t anymore. The chuckling can probably be heard throughout College Park, because there is no way anyone should write about this team and this moment without breaking into fits of hysterical laughter.
All this fuss about stealing signs — it’s just college football’s latest dramedy. And for the past month, there has been no dearth of unintentional humor, especially because Michigan can’t read the room.
During Saturday’s 31-24 victory over Maryland, the Wolverines (11-0) made young staffers hold up flags to block Fox cameras from peeking into the team huddle — because you can never be too careful these days with all the rogue sign-stealers out there. When the university accepted the Big Ten Conference’s three-game suspension of Coach Jim Harbaugh, the authors of Thursday’s statement couldn’t help but squeeze in words such as “high standards” and “values.” And hopefully they typed those words through a haze of tears after laughing so hard.
And Harbaugh, who also must sit out the big matchup with rival Ohio State next Saturday, wears a straight face when painting his Wolverines as the injured party in this mess — a mess of their creation because former staffer Connor Stalions was so bad at cheating that he got caught. If that doesn’t make you bend over in giggles, then you must be Sherrone Moore.
Earnest and loyal, Moore, the offensive coordinator who is filling in for Harbaugh, again showed his boss some love during his on-field interview after the game. This time, Moore didn’t shed tears and drop f-bombs while professing his love. In leading Michigan to a second straight close win, Moore called the plays, and though his offense scored just one touchdown in the second half, he dialed up a fourth-and-short running play with under two minutes to go that sealed the win. Michigan remained undefeated thanks in large part to its special teams and defense.
In the fourth quarter, Maryland trailed by only five, but after a 47-yard punt pinned it at the 1-yard line, the Terps had to start their last drive while staring down danger. Two plays in, senior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa dropped back into the end zone; when the pocket collapsed, he tossed a pass in the general direction of wideout Tai Felton. The ball fell way short of making Felton an eligible receiver, so Tagovailoa was flagged for intentional grounding, resulting in a safety.
“It was good. It was good. Maybe we needed this test a little bit,” Michigan running back Blake Corum said, crediting Maryland for preparing his Wolverines for their biggest game of the season. “Maybe we needed a close game like this. … [Maryland] gave us a run for our money out there.”
The safety ended any hopes of an upset by Maryland (6-5) as Michigan’s offense returned to the field and ate up the rest of the clock. The Wolverines would remain on Maryland’s turf after the game, too, as players and staffers posed for a team photo around “1000” signs. And showing he has a wry sense of humor, Moore said of the photo: “First, we need to edit Coach in there. With technology in the world today, we can get that done.”
That remark drew snickers from reporters, and that’s the kind of response the university’s most passionate fans should keep for the rest of the season: Just laugh it off. But I suspect the way Michigan sees things, through Harbaugh’s rectangular-framed lenses, Saturday’s nail-biter against a Maryland team that just recently freed itself from a midseason tailspin wasn’t just a win under duress. Rather, it was the finest act of resilience shown under winged helmets. An all-time top-10 — no, top-five! — win for America’s team, which shall forever be the iron wall that middling Big Ten teams bash against and shatter. Yet another triumph over adversity, over the naysayers, over the so-called critics. By the way, these are Harbaugh’s sentiments, not mine. But I could add: This win was a conquest of the entire globe because it’s “Michigan vs. Everybody.”
I saw that phrase plenty around SECU Stadium on Saturday. It was on blue hoodies and T-shirts, within cliques of loyal fans who flooded the concourse by airing, and wearing, their grievances. But thank goodness for the fans with a sense of humor.
There was a boy holding an elaborate homemade poster, with the kind of coloring-within-the-lines precision and mature wisecracking that you would suspect needed parental assistance: “Ryan Day Can’t Steal My Sign.” The inside joke was that, according to Michigan, Ohio State and Rutgers sent the Wolverines’ offensive and defensive signals to Purdue ahead of its meeting with Michigan in the 2022 Big Ten championship game.
Then there was Carlos Mora, a 40-year-old who already had a few adult beverages by the time I spotted him. Mora and some buddies went with a more sarcastic approach, wearing maize-colored shirts with a pair of binoculars beneath the words “Vast Network.” That’s a clever way of embracing an infamous quote from an unidentified source about Michigan’s sign-stealing methods.
“They’re trying to blow this out of proportion,” a good-natured Mora said. While maybe or maybe not joking, he added, “They’re going for the best team in the world.”
Dustin Lang, another member of the Ann Arbor crowd that invaded College Park, got his funny shirt in the mail just in time for the trip to Maryland. At a recent home game, Lang noticed opposing fans wearing shirts that suggested “Sign Stealers” should be Michigan’s new team name. So over the weekend he Googled until he found a witty comeback designed on a blue hoodie. The message gets straight to the point: “I’m Just Here To Steal Your Signs.”
Like so many of the fans around him, Lang was leaning into the scandal. Or maybe he was reclining into the scandal, or stretching his legs out and propping them right on top of the scandal, waiting for the next drop in the NCAA’s investigation for more comedic material.
“I think it’s kind of like an eh,” said Lang, shrugging his shoulders while describing how he thinks fellow Michigan fans feel about everything.
With a college football scandal as ridiculous as this one — based on an antiquated rule, masterminded by an overzealous staffer in a dollar-store spy disguise and moralized by conference leadership that has done more damage to the purity of the game than any stolen signs ever will — the only appropriate reaction is to sit back and shrug. And then laugh.
If the Wolverines can do that, they’ll see that they’re not persecuted nor wrongfully targeted. They’re just caught up in the absurdity of their sport while romping through what could become a perfect season that no one will be able to take away. Because of that, they should be laughing all the way to the College Football Playoff.