SportsMonday Column: Two games to change the narrative

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh joked that anger is a powerful motivator Saturday, but the Wolverines have a chance to prove his point.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh joked that anger is a powerful motivator Saturday, but the Wolverines have a chance to prove his point. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily
Sunday, November 12, 2017 - 6:59pm

Anger is a powerful motivator, so said Jim Harbaugh this Saturday.

Well, it’s time to find out just how true that is. 

In the week that followed a thorough thrashing at the hands of then-No. 2 Penn State, the Wolverines’ disappointment — touched with a dose of that underlying anger — was palpable.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown said if the Wolverines went any harder in practice they would start hurting themselves.

Rashan Gary admitted he wasn’t sure how to feel. He said it hurt, but also said he was happy it happened, calling it adversity this team needed to go through.

And he called on those who said Michigan’s defense still needed to prove itself to pay attention for the rest of the year.

“I don’t feel personally we have to prove anything to anybody,” he said then.

The fact is, whether Gary deems it a necessary crucible or not, the Wolverines still haven’t proved any of their doubters wrong. Michigan has become a different team since its season was about to run off the rails in State College, but no one truly knows what that means yet.

The Wolverines have themselves a new quarterback in Brandon Peters, and he has acquitted himself well enough — completing 28 of his 46 attempts for 329 yards and four touchdowns through three games.

Karan Higdon, and the stable of backs behind him, have thrived behind a resurgent offensive line — rushing for an average of 288.3 yards per game.

The defense has done its part too, holding three straight opponents to 14 points or less.

But the fact remains: the results against those opponents were expected all along. The Wolverines beat Rutgers and Minnesota handily at home. Saturday afternoon, they kept up with those expectations, notching a 35-10 victory against Maryland in College Park.

They’ve picked up the pieces from the disaster in State College, but they haven’t put them entirely back together just yet. 

That anger still festers. It should for Jim Harbaugh too. And it goes beyond the confines of this season.

Yes, Michigan was embarrassed against Penn State. That one loss matters, but it is only one stroke of an ugly painting.

Last season, the Wolverines were sitting pretty, hopes of a College Football Playoff berth glimmering with three weeks remaining in the season.

Then they went to Iowa City, and lost. They went to Columbus, and lost. They went to the Orange Bowl and lost again. All in all, a season seemingly destined for glory was halted in its tracks.

So here Michigan is again, faced with two games to close the season that will be a barometer of just how far this team has come — not just since Penn State, but since last year.

Win them, and that’s another 10-2 record with a whole lot of intangible progress attached to it. Lose them and, well, that’s a story for another day.

First up is a trip to Madison. No. 5 Wisconsin hasn’t needed anger as a motivator, mainly because the Badgers don’t have much reason to be angry. They remain the Big Ten’s only undefeated team, and for the most part, it’s been an easy path to this point.

No. 8 Ohio State, on the other hand, had plenty to be angry about. And the Buckeyes can agree with Harbaugh on one thing: anger is a powerful motivator indeed. They avenged a 55-24 upset at Iowa by hanging 48 points on Michigan State — blowing the Spartans out at home.

The odds are grim for Michigan from here. Add in the fact that the Wolverines have yet to beat a team with a winning record this year, or that they haven’t beaten a ranked team on the road since 2006, and the odds are even grimmer.

But all those losses can’t be rectified until Michigan beats a quality opponent. And they’re about to face two.

Let’s see just how angry the Wolverines are. 

Santo can be reached at kmsanto@umich.edu or on Twitter @Kevin_M_Santo.