When halftime ended Saturday afternoon and Michigan’s players gathered around their position coaches, Jim Harbaugh stood by Cade McNamara. The sophomore quarterback had missed two second-quarter drives with a shoulder injury, but he was still the Wolverines’ path to reversing their 17-7 deficit and Harbaugh knew it.
McNamara, though, represented more than that. He was Harbaugh’s only chance to lend a semblance of positivity to a season that careens toward new lows with each passing week.
Then his shoulder tightened back up, Harbaugh re-inserted Joe Milton and the Wolverines scored just 10 second-half points. With a 27-17 loss to a previously winless Penn State team, Michigan fell to 2-4.
And in the end, this week’s iteration of Harbaugh’s calamitous Year Six looked just like the others. When the Nittany Lions sealed their win with a final third-down conversion, the only sound on Michigan’s sideline was a player slamming his plastic water bottle against a metal bench.
“No one wants to lose a game,” junior defensive lineman Taylor Upshaw said. “So it’s frustrating, of course.”
This year, losing has happened at the highest rate since 2008, when Michigan finished 3-9. The Wolverines’ four losses are already the second-highest total of the Harbaugh era. In his previous five years in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh hadn’t hit that mark before Week 12.
It made sense, then, when Harbaugh’s frustration reached a boiling point Saturday. This was the Wolverines’ opportunity to build off momentum from a come-from-behind, triple-overtime win over Rutgers last weekend. That it came against a winless opponent should have provided Harbaugh with the perfect opportunity to reverse this season’s course.
Instead, Michigan only sunk further into the depths of despair. The loudest cheers from Harbaugh’s sideline in the second half came on Penn State penalties. When freshman receiver A.J. Henning leapt over a Nittany Lions’ defender to make a highlight-reel catch, Harbaugh had to turn towards a group of players sitting on the bench and tell them to stand up and cheer.
“It’s tough to be in this position, it’s not what we imagined,” senior right tackle Andrew Stueber said. “As an older guy on the team, you really gotta keep everybody up.”
For stretches in Saturday’s second half, the Wolverines did that. When junior running back Hassan Haskins cut the deficit to 20-17, he was met with fist bumps and butt slaps. A similar reaction met Upshaw after his third-quarter sack.
Far more common, though, was the familiar intersection of frustration and dejection.
Harbaugh’s calm demeanor evaporated for good when the Nittany Lions converted a second-and-6 and third-and-7 deep in Michigan territory to restore their 10-point lead, waving his arms and yelling angrily after each.
“We gotta tackle better,” Harbaugh said. “There’s too many missed tackles.”
A drive later, his frustration culminated when Haskins and Milton were stuffed short of first downs on consecutive plays, just outside field goal range.
“You’re down there on the field, you don’t really know for sure (about the spots),” Harbaugh said. “But getting the tackles on the short yardage and just being able to get a yard when you need it offensively. … Our inability to do that and their ability to do that was critical in the game.”
After Milton’s stop, Harbaugh lowered his mask, screaming at the field judge to bring out the chains and double-check his spot. The official complied, proving that, once again, Michigan had come up short.
The same rang true again moments later on the defensive side. This time, Harbaugh had no fire left in him. All he could do was yell out one word and look up at the south scoreboard for a replay. What he said was obscured by his mask and fake crowd noise, but it takes no great leap of faith to assume it may have been four letters.
“I’m very competitive and want to win,” Harbaugh said. “And hate losing.”
This year, that’s happened far too often for his liking. On Saturday, it happened against a winless team, seven days after a win that seemed to reverse momentum.
So after the game, when Harbaugh was asked to sum up his team’s mood, he could only offer up one word.