When the ball hit Ronnie Bell’s hands then dropped harmlessly onto the turf, it symbolized the end of more than just the game.
In big-time college football, two losses mean no College Football Playoff. While a Big Ten title is still theoretically possible, it’s now very unlikely. Those were Michigan’s biggest goals coming into the season. No matter how much fight the Wolverines showed Saturday, those goals are essentially gone.
Under these kinds of circumstances, there is inevitably a debate about what the rest of the season means, and what there is to play for if there are no accolades on the horizon.
For Michigan, those answers seem to lie in the remaining games on the schedule — and a steadfast belief in themselves.
“A lot of people saying we have nothing to play for,” said fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jon Runyan on Tuesday. “But we have everything to play for. We got all these guys in the locker room, we got all our coaches, we have our families that we’re playing for.”
Universally, players and coaches pointed to the next game on the schedule — a home game, at night, against traditional rival and top-10 opponent in Notre Dame. Win that game, and while it might not mean anything in the conference race, it’ll mean something to a program that’s been invested in this rivalry for over a century.
In his Monday press conference, Jim Harbaugh preached the same thing he does before every game — “this week is the most important game of the season” — and while that may not be literally true anymore in the context of the Playoff, the significance of Saturday, and of upcoming rivalry games against Michigan State and Ohio State, isn’t lost on anyone.
On Monday, senior defensive tackle Carlo Kemp faced the scrum as normal, but the way he answered questions seemed like anything but a traditional media session. Instead, his words seemed like an impassioned speech, a plea for everyone to stop treating the season like it was over.
“What’s left to play is, we’ve got our whole season left,” Kemp said. “We’re at the midway point. We’ve got five games coming up. … And we’ve got three of the most important rivalries in college football coming up. You’ve got Notre Dame, you’ve got Michigan State and then you’ve got the game at the end of the year.
“And those are the games that you play for. Those are the teams that you’re gonna want to play for, and we’re not just gonna sit here and be like, ‘Alright, we’re done,’ and go out there and just coast the rest of the season.”
The Wolverines lost to the Fighting Irish last year. They have yet to beat the Spartans at home in Harbaugh’s tenure. And the Buckeyes? The 0-4 record speaks for itself. Those facts themselves present plenty for Michigan to play for — even if it’s not in the way it originally hoped.
Defensive line coach Shaun Nua and sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson both admitted that it was tough to accept Saturday’s loss. But Nua was pleased with the response in Tuesday’s practice and the focus they showed in the face of adversity.
Against Notre Dame, the Wolverines will get the chance to prove that the season still means something to them, that there are still things to play for, even if there isn’t a trip to Indianapolis or New Orleans waiting for them at the end.
“Yes, we lost, but you’ve gotta remember, this isn’t our last game of the year,” Kemp said. “It’s not like, ‘Alright, we’re done, let’s start packing up and we'll get ready for next season.’ We have top-10 matchups coming up and the big thing is, we have one this Saturday. And we have another opportunity on the national stage to go out there, play in front of our own fans and go out there and represent Michigan and play on a big stage.”