There’s a kind of routine to this by now.
Michigan goes on the road and loses to a better team. It comes back home and spends the next week talking about a refocused energy. It beats up on a bad team or two, calming things down before the next real opponent comes into town. Still, the initial loss casts a pall.
From there, it goes one of two ways. Last season, Michigan ripped off 10 straight wins, including three over good teams, riding the streak into Columbus as the bruise left by the initial loss faded. In 2017, it metastasized and Michigan went 8-4 in the regular season, the worst year of the Harbaugh era.
Those are the two directions this season can head towards, starting Saturday.
The phrase “measuring stick” has gotten some play ahead of Michigan’s matchup with Iowa. It’s a sympathetic framing. In reality, the measuring stick was two weeks ago in Madison, and the Badgers blew the doors off Michigan. Until proven otherwise, that’s the lens through which this season will be viewed.
But the Wolverines don’t have a chance to beat a good team on the road this week. Ohio State won’t roll through until late November. Michigan can’t absolve the woes of the Harbaugh era on Saturday, but it has a chance to beat Iowa at home, and that’s a task unto itself.
Iowa, as has been pointed out in kinder terms by many this week, is a poor man’s Wisconsin. The two teams play a similar style of grind-it-out, classic Big Ten football. The Badgers do a better version of it. That game was on the road, this one is at home.
Call Saturday a barometer of sorts if you wish. Certainly, it’s a chance for Michigan to make the same mistake twice.
Special teams coordinator Chris Partridge, more than any other coach or player who spoke to media this week, painted a vivid picture of a program that picked itself up off the mat after getting embarrassed two weeks ago.
“Everybody responded. Every single person in this building responded,” Partridge said. “That’s not common when you get beat like that in a game.”
As for Harbaugh, the man at the center of the storm?
“Unbelievable how he handled the team and the coaches that week,” Partridge said. “It was just like a clinic, I felt.”
That’s fine and good. A 52-0 beatdown of Rutgers last Saturday surely helped out Michigan’s confidence and started its recuperation from Wisconsin. It didn’t finish that recuperation, though, and it proves nothing if the Wolverines can’t follow up.
The looming reality of this season still remains: every game left on the schedule is either against a ranked team or on the road. The Scarlet Knights were the last hurrah for empty blowouts. The next eight games are as strong a test as Michigan has faced under Harbaugh.
This week is likely the best shot the Wolverines have this year of knocking off one of those ranked teams and a game they absolutely must win to keep any semblance of optimism for their season. That doesn’t mean it’s a gimme.
An offensive line that struggled against Wisconsin and is likely to be missing its best blocking tight end, Sean McKeon, will need to figure out how to block star edge rusher AJ Epenesa. The run game averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry against Rutgers — that won’t cut it against Iowa, or most of the opponents left on the schedule.
Josh Gattis standing on the sideline is a nice cosmetic change. Michigan’s offense looked truly improved last week, but it’s impossible not to against Rutgers. Saturday will start to tell us whether it actually means anything.
“If you play two really good games in a row, that would be a trend in my mind,” Harbaugh said. “Three or more, a habit.”
In Harbaugh parlance, more than that might form a callus. That would be an uphill task given the schedule. It’s also what was expected of Michigan before the season. Beating Rutgers by 52 does as little to change the goalposts as losing to Wisconsin by 21.
But on Saturday, Michigan could get a little closer to its initial goal. It has yet to change, if you ask some players.
“We know that we’re gonna see (Wisconsin) again in my hometown, for the Big Ten championship,” sophomore linebacker Cam McGrone said after the Rutgers win. “I don’t really mind hearing it, cause I know when we see them again, we’re gonna smack ‘em in the mouth.”
Ben Bredeson, a senior guard and, more importantly, a captain, kept things more diplomatic.
“We’re just focused on Iowa and not trying to make a statement for a game that happened two weeks ago,” he said this week when asked a baiting question about Wisconsin.
Michigan can say it’s moved on from the loss two weeks ago. For the rest of us, that process can start with a win this week.