UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jim Harbaugh’s hands were on his hips. His sweatshirt creased, the lines making their way around the back. He stood near the epicenter of a stadium that shook and swayed, singing and cheering in something nearing delirium, speaking with referees. He bore a look of exasperation and déjà vu.
The call on the field — that Penn State made the line to gain — was confirmed.
Minutes later, as 110,000-plus voices serenaded him and his Michigan football team in mocking unison, Harbaugh threw off his headset and started to walk towards midfield, a horde of cameras following. The clock ticked towards zero and in a game where the Wolverines had pulled their way back from the abyss encompassing the program all the way to fourth-and-goal at the three-yard line, they lost anyway, 28-21, to the Nittany Lions.
“We’ve just got to move onto the next day,” said senior VIPER Khaleke Hudson. Next to him, Shea Patterson nodded silently, having been on the edge of tears for nearly all of a seven-minute press conference. “We’ve got to work even harder in practice and we’ve just got to stay on top of our film work and keep trusting our guys.”
This is the kind of game Michigan has gained a reputation for losing spectacularly under Harbaugh, the hump he can’t seem to get over.
The game’s first 30 minutes felt like a bad remake. The Wolverines wasted a timeout before the game’s first snap. They got conservative in their decision-making on offense. They dropped passes and dropped an interception. With 10 minutes left in the second quarter and Penn State leading 14-0, Patterson, a senior quarterback, got picked off on a screen pass and the stadium breathed fire.
But this wasn’t another 35-14 blowout at Wisconsin or another 62-39 shellacking at the hands of Ohio State. This was a vulnerable Penn State and a Michigan that seemed to click into place as the game went along. Where the Wolverines seemed completely overmatched in those earlier contests, Saturday merely felt like a missed opportunity.
“Made adjustments at halftime. They were good and I felt like our guys were not nervous,” Harbaugh said. “They were playing and executing. It felt like, just keep going and get this game won. That was our belief.”
Harbaugh, mostly, fell back on the same platitudes that have become commonplace when he gets behind a microphone. At one point, he brought up the officiating — a borderline holding call on Lavert Hill that extended a Penn State drive at the start of the fourth quarter and cost Michigan a decisive seven points, among others.
It’s easy to look at that call on Hill and gripe. But when KJ Hamler burned Josh Metellus on a post for a 53-yard score four plays later, it was — according to Harbaugh — because Michigan missed a signal, and didn’t have a safety covering the post as a result.
When Harbaugh got to Michigan in 2015, he garnered a reputation for being so precise and detail-oriented that even the student managers felt the heat, needing to tighten up. On Saturday, when they missed that call and Hamler waltzed into the end zone, Harbaugh paced up the sideline, staring into a sea of white and adjusting his headset.
This is the closest Michigan has come to winning a game like this — a game it wasn’t supposed to win, a game in which it was on the road as a touchdown underdog — since 2016, when Harbaugh still held all the promise of a savior.
Now, after the Wolverines’ second loss effectively ended their hopes of making the College Football Playoff, winning the Big Ten or even making the conference title game for the first time under Harbaugh, there is no surprise in this program’s identity. As close as it came to taking that elusive first step on Saturday, a tectonic shift has yet to happen. More and more, it seems like it might never.
For a moment in the fourth quarter, Michigan was right there on the cusp. The Wolverines held Penn State under 100 yards in the second half. Their offense looked like something to be reckoned with — Patterson leading drives with authority, the Nittany Lions struggling to keep up with the tempo.
“I felt like we kinda found our groove a little bit,” Patterson said. “The run game got us in the game, our receivers made big plays in space.”
“We felt like we had them right in our hands,” said redshirt freshman linebacker Cam McGrone. “This is where we wanted them. We felt we could force them to do what we wanted to. We did.”
They got as far as the goal-line, with two downs to play with. Harbaugh’s hands were on his knees, his back hunched forward, when that number dwindled down to one. He said later that he wanted a fade in the corner of the end zone, but Penn State covered that up.
Instead, Patterson hovered in the pocket. He saw Ronnie Bell in the center of the end zone, just past the goal line. As the football hit Bell’s hands, Harbaugh’s arms went up, a palpable expression of relief. As the ball hit the ground, his arms came back down. He ran up to Patterson and said something about getting the ball back. With two minutes left and three timeouts, possibilities remained.
In the end, though, it was just more of the same. For Harbaugh and for his program.