SportsMonday Column: On what makes a successful season
COLUMBUS — Shea Patterson walked into the room, every camera focused on him, and sat down.
The junior quarterback sighed. Loudly. Then he sighed again.
Michigan’s starting quarterback didn’t have much to say about what happened at Ohio Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Neither did his coach, nor his other teammates who spoke briefly with reporters after the Wolverines’ 62-39 dismantling at the hands of Ohio State.
I don’t blame them. Truth be told, there isn’t much to say about this rivalry anymore, other than what has been said for the past few years.
Michigan has not beaten the Buckeyes in seven years, not since Ohio State hired Urban Meyer. The Wolverines have won once in the past 15 years, which means that if you are a freshman in high school like my sister, you have seen exactly one (1) win. And it was against a terrible Ohio State team led by an interim coach.
There are children reaching the formative years of their childhood, the years when you start to retain lasting memories, who have never seen Michigan beat the Buckeyes. Their formative memories of this rivalry will be of a botched two-point conversion in 2013. A disputed spot after a fourth-down play in 2016.
And what happened Saturday, when Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins played pitch-and-catch with his teammates and Buckeye freshman receiver Chris Olave etched his name into history by catching two touchdowns and blocking a punt that was returned for a score.
Ohio State gets Herculean efforts from players like Haskins and Olave seemingly every year. And almost every time, the Wolverines are left with the same feeling — what Patterson put into words as “a pretty sour taste.”
Understandably, Patterson was muted and mostly kept his answers short.
But I want to discuss one of his longer responses.
Patterson was asked whether he would characterize this season as a success.
“I do,” he said. “We have high expectations and high hopes here at Michigan, and that’s displayed every day in work at practice. So any time we don’t reach our ultimate goal, that’s obviously a little bit of a letdown to most of us.
“But a 10-win season, you know, we played a lot of good teams, played in the Big Ten. And, I don’t know, I think this is a successful season. Still have a bowl game to go compete for.”
That’s different from what Harbaugh said 32 years ago when he guaranteed a Michigan win over Ohio State.
“The last 10 games we played mean nothing to us right now. It’s down to a one-game season,” Harbaugh said in 1986. “Ohio State is our season. If we win this game, then it’s a successful season.”
As I drove back from Columbus Saturday night, I thought about how to square those two statements. They seem to conflict with each other.
I think now that I would agree with Patterson’s assertion.
For the program in its current state, this was a successful season. Harbaugh and the Wolverines deserve credit for turning around the ship in one short year after finishing 8-5 last season. Harbaugh parted ways with one of his longest-tenured assistants. He brought a few fresh voices onto his staff. Michigan is recruiting much better than it was last year, which was very much needed. It’s playing much better, too.
The Wolverines went from fourth in the Big Ten East to winning a share of the division title by beating Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. The “Revenge Tour” injected life into the program. Now Michigan will have a chance to win 11 games, which it has done just twice this century.
In all of those aspects, the season was a success, like Patterson said.
Because things have changed since Harbaugh made his famous guarantee. This isn’t the same Michigan. The Wolverines don’t trade Big Ten titles with Ohio State anymore. They hardly go to the Rose Bowl, which is why a trip this year — even though it isn’t a playoff game — would still mean something to this program.
Losing to Ohio State with a Big Ten championship and playoff bid on the line is a bitter pill to swallow.
That is the dark cloud that will be cast over this season. Saturday’s loss showed just how far apart these two programs are, when many (including me) thought Harbaugh and Michigan would close the gap this year.
But it wasn’t too long ago that this program finished 5-7 and made its second coaching change in four years. Harbaugh has revived Michigan. Since then, Harbaugh has led the Wolverines to three double-digit seasons in four years, the first to do it since Fielding Yost. That’s why it would be hard to deem this season as a failure.
The bars have shifted lower. And that’s where they’ll remain until the Wolverines win the only game that used to matter.