When Jim Harbaugh spoke with the media following Michigan’s 49-11 evisceration at the hands of Wisconsin on Saturday night, his message was accountability.
“We were thoroughly beaten in every phase,” Harbaugh opened, still settling into his place at a lectern beneath Michigan Stadium. “Didn’t really do anything well. And did not play good, did not coach good.
“… Not a good place as a football team right now and that falls on me.”
For Harbaugh, it was a unique tone to match a unique low point of his tenure. In past defeats, his lesson has been myopic. Michigan has had bad games, showings where Harbaugh felt his own performance wasn’t up to snuff.
But rarely has he taken a macro view of his team and admitted that the Wolverines simply aren’t very good.
On Monday morning, that’s the message he carried into meetings with his players.
“We’re not very good this year, as our record shows,” Harbaugh said, according to junior cornerback Gemon Green.
Harbaugh wasn’t telling his players anything they didn’t already know. On Monday, both Green and sophomore safety Daxton Hill acknowledged that Michigan isn’t where it needs to be.
“This is really my first (time), having a losing record and all that,” Green said. “Even growing up in PeeWee I never had a losing record.”
But the point of Harbaugh’s message wasn’t to kick his team while they’re down. It was to tell them to take advantage of this adversity. It’s a situation Michigan didn’t expect to be in — its Big Ten title hopes, New Years’ Six Bowl hopes and more out the window by week four — but the Wolverines “still have the opportunity to be the best players we can be,” according to Green.
“It’s a faith in each individual player and each individual coach,” Harbaugh said. “And collectively as a team … keep pushing. You’re gonna find a way. You’re gonna find out what works, you’re gonna break through. I think there’s so many athletes that have realized greatness in athletic performance and in sports, a lot of areas of life isn’t perfection, it’s overcoming adversity and obstacles. That’s what we’re striving for.”
And for a team filled with underclassmen starters, proving yourself for the future — as a team and as individuals — means something.
“I wanna lead (the players),” Harbaugh said. “I want them to hear my voice and understand what the objectives are gonna be each and every day.”
Right now, the first objective is changing the energy surrounding this team. It’s painfully clear — to Harbaugh, to his players, to anyone watching on TV — that the Wolverines’ body language Saturday night embodied a losing team. From Joe Milton’s first interception on Michigan’s first offensive snap, Harbaugh stood with his hands on his hips, staring forward. His team reflected that energy, reacting to their rare positive plays with muted claps and to the far more common negative ones with drooped shoulders and silence.
“We came out flat, so just gotta continue changing the energy,” Hill said. “Not keeping the same energy but changing the energy on the sideline in the game, come out strong. That’s the biggest key of this game, whoever has the momentum first is gonna determine the outcome of this game.”
It’s jarring to hear a Michigan player say energy is key to the outcome of a looming game against Rutgers. In Harbaugh’s five years, the Wolverines have outscored the Scarlet Knights, 256-37.
This year is different. On the season, Rutgers has been outscored by five fewer points than Michigan has. Unlike the Wolverines, the Scarlet Knights beat Michigan State. Both schools have lost to Indiana, but Rutgers did so by one fewer point.
Still, Michigan is 81 spots higher in ESPN’s SP+ rankings. It opened as a 10-point favorite and a loss, even in Piscataway, would be somewhat shocking.
But it’s imminently possible in a way it never previously has been.
“Who knows what next Saturday (holds),” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Carlo Kemp said Saturday. “We might be in a dogfight, we might be winning by a lot, might be losing by a lot.”
To avoid the third option, Harbaugh knows his message needs to click.
“Eventually (the objective) is going to be Saturday, winning that football game,” Harbaugh said. “Everything that we can do by all means necessary to put ourselves in a position to win.”
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