It has become easy to forget there is a football game to play this weekend.
That’s in part because of the panic surrounding Michigan right now, after every problem came to a nadir at once last Saturday. The resulting fallout from a blowout loss at Wisconsin has yet to settle. It’s also because the next opponent, Rutgers, can do little to settle it.
The Scarlet Knights are the worst program in the Big Ten and one of the worst in the country. The annual iteration of this game is usually a slow procession towards the clock striking zero, and to boot, Rutgers’ starting quarterback, McLane Carter, will miss this edition with a concussion. It’s hard to quell doubters in the way Michigan wants against this team.
But not impossible.
Three years ago in the lead-up to a trip to Piscataway, Jim Harbaugh was asked the inevitable question when an inevitable win awaits — one that dismissed the cliche of preparing for each opponent and tried to get at what the Wolverines could actually take away from the impending 60-minute formality.
“We’ll treat it as a big game,” Harbaugh said. “We will treat it as a championship game.”
Five days later, Michigan walked off the field with a 78-0 win. The Wolverines went for 605 total yards and held Rutgers to 39. When they were up 27-0, they went for two. Not only that, but they did so by faking the extra point. They played ruthlessly, but as close to perfect as you can play a game of football. They showed a killer instinct to the point of bad sportsmanship.
It’s not just the only time this century the Wolverines have won a game by 70, it’s one of just two they’ve won by 60 or more. The other was just weeks earlier in the same season, against Hawaii.
It was hard not to be thinking about the unyielding style of football Michigan used to play this week when, in the equivalent press conference five days before playing Rutgers, Harbaugh brought up questions of effort and hustle.
He wasn’t alluding to Rutgers, an opponent where effort and hustle might naturally stray, either. He was alluding to Wisconsin — which Michigan should have been amped up to play, a game where it wanted to prove something.
“Players have to focus. Always have to play with focus,” Harbaugh said. “That has to be coached, too. That's not getting done.”
That’s a far cry from treating every game like a championship. So is the rest of the conversation around Schembechler Hall this week.
“Not trying to call out anyone,” said fifth-year senior tackle Jon Runyan Jr., “but I feel like there were some plays (against Wisconsin) where the effort could’ve been better.”
“We’ve really faced some tough adversity — and not really necessarily faced some tough adversity,” said offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. “We’ve really kind of put ourselves in some tough adversity.”
“We didn’t want to put that on national TV,” said graduate transfer defensive end Mike Danna. “We didn’t want that on our record or on our label or whatever. Because that’s not our identity and that’s not how we play football.”
Right now, though, it is how Michigan has played. It’s in the numbers, and it’s on the tape. The Wolverines have never been further removed from that identity-affirming 78-0 demolition than they are now.
It’s not much of a question as to whether Michigan will actually win this Saturday. It’s a 27.5-point favorite. But in their last six games against the spread, the Wolverines have failed to cover. All by at least two touchdowns.
Even under normal circumstances, just beating Rutgers wouldn’t be particularly notable. Here, it would be cause to keep the alarm bells ringing as Iowa, a real opponent with a chance of winning, comes to Ann Arbor next week.
To convince anyone of anything, covering the spread is a bare minimum.
Want to get some confidence around this program again? Want to get everyone to shut up about what Michigan can’t do and open up some room for belief?
Treat this the way this team treated this game three years ago. Like a championship game. Play with a killer instinct. Don’t step off the pedal.
Show everyone what this offense’s ceiling is — how three NFL-level receivers can dominate, how a senior quarterback can lead, how this offensive line can plow open holes for its vaunted freshman running back. Show everyone how this defense can dominate like Michigan has throughout Don Brown’s tenure as coordinator — everyone swarming the ball, the quarterback running for his life. There won’t be a better chance.
It won’t fix every problem, and being unable to kick the hell out of Rutgers isn’t one of the existential crises of the Jim Harbaugh era. But Rutgers is the opponent in front of the Wolverines this week, and doing that would at least be a start.
“You look through the game, you really don’t need to look at the stats,” Gattis said.
He was talking about last week. He should be able to say the same about this week.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears.