Ron Bellamy knows what it’s like coping with a gut-wrenching loss to Michigan State.
In 2001, Bellamy and the sixth-ranked Michigan football team stormed into Spartan Stadium as national title contenders. They left East Lansing battered and bruised, having lost on a touchdown as time expired following a controversial clock stoppage.
In the game’s aftermath — which included fixing a locker room that Bellamy maintains linebacker Larry Foote “destroyed” — Lloyd Carr’s speech ushered the team forward.
“One thing coach Carr told us, kind of a similar approach to what coach Harbaugh has, it’s a fighter’s mentality,” Bellamy said on Wednesday. “You get punched, you don’t lay down on the canvas. You get up, you keep swinging.”
Twenty years later, Bellamy, in his first year on staff as Michigan’s safeties coach, finds himself in a rather similar position.
Last Saturday, Bellamy watched on as the Wolverines squandered a 16-point third quarter lead to Michigan State. Just after junior receiver Mike Sainristil struck a triumphant Paul Bunyan celebration in the endzone, Michigan collapsed.
Players and coaches have spent the week maintaining that their season isn’t over. With four games remaining on the schedule, including the all-important rendezvous with Ohio State, that much is true.
But the season will soon be rendered meaningless if the Wolverines fail to punch back.
“That’s our philosophy this week,” Bellamy said.
The team has apparently embraced that school of thought. Players spent the weekend watching film from the game, both to diagnose their mistakes and achieve catharsis. On Monday, Michigan’s leadership council organized a player’s only meeting to refocus and ensure everyone was on the same page. Later that day, they returned to practice with a bundle of energy.
“Great juice and really the same as they were before,” tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh said. “… That consistency and preparation and approach is something you’re looking to achieve if you want to be a great team.”
Michigan, the ninth-ranked team in the country, isn’t quite at that echelon yet. But it can ascend there, regardless of the loss. Sophomore guard Zak Zinter declared as much on Tuesday, noting that “we’ve still got everything we want in front of us.”
It’s certainly a more arduous path, but those aspirations — presumably a victory over Ohio State, a Big Ten championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff — are not impossible.
The journey begins Saturday, under the lights at Michigan Stadium against Indiana. Michigan must back its conviction on the field, or else risk letting its season go to waste.
In a way, the challenge facing the Wolverines is similar to the one they confronted early in the season, when attempting to convince the public that they were “different.” For a while, they made good on their word, turning naysayers into believers by wrestling away a victory at Nebraska and throttling Wisconsin in Madison. Because of their on-field success, their relentless platitudes didn’t ring hollow.
Now, they have to do it all over again.
Michigan has maintained that it’s not overlooking Indiana; Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called the Hoosiers a “good, good football team” on Monday.
That’s the right mindset to have, but the reality is that Indiana is undeserving of the praise. The Hoosiers, last place in the Big Ten East, are woeful. Last Saturday, they lost to Maryland, a perennial punching bag. This Saturday, they’re set to start an 18-year-old true freshman quarterback.
It’s a game Michigan should win handedly, carrying over the momentum from a week’s worth of practice.
There are blueprints here for Michigan to follow. In 2019, the Wolverines dropped a back-breaking, hard-fought game in Happy Valley. A game that Harbaugh ceremoniously dubbed the Wolverines’ “finest hour” morphed into a familiarly devastating loss when Ronnie Bell dropped a potential game-tying touchdown pass. Michigan, at that point saddled with two losses, had lost its championship aspirations.
And yet, the Wolverines pushed forward. The ensuing week, they rocked Notre Dame. They went on to rattle off three more wins, each in dominant fashion, thereby heading into the Ohio State clash with tangible momentum.
There’s also a blueprint to avoid. It’s one that most of these Wolverines were a part of.
“I think last year, we took a loss and it kind of affected us going into the next week,” Zinter said, referencing the calamitous 2-4 campaign. “I think this year, it’s different.”
Demolishing Indiana is one way to start proving that.
Greenspan can be reached on Twitter @jared_greenspan