Jim Harbaugh asked his team a question during its first meeting of the week Monday.
On the surface, it was a simple one. But within the context of a long season nearing its conclusion, it was not.
“He looked at us and he asked us if we were tired as a whole team,” said redshirt junior cornerback Jeremy Clark.
The players had reason to say yes, mentally and physically. They have been dealt their share of injuries, the most recent being the loss of redshirt junior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow’s pectoral injury. They have also had to combat the mental stress that comes with three out of their last four games being decided on the final play. The latest rendition, Saturday’s win against Indiana, took two overtimes.
Still, they were resolute in their answer.
“We all said, ‘No,’ ” Clark said. “And then he said, ‘All right then.’ ”
According to Clark, Harbaugh believes much of the fatigue is mental and can be cured with a positive attitude. Still, Michigan is taking measures to reduce the fatigue and wear and tear that comes with the late stages of a football season.
Though Clark agreed the Wolverines do have a bounce in their step, as Harbaugh said Monday, players are taking fewer snaps in practice for preservation purposes.
The fatigue was evident at times during against the Hoosiers, when Indiana’s up-tempo offense gashed Michigan’s defense to the tune of 527 yards. The performance was not a pretty one.
The wear and tear also extended to Michigan’s special teams unit. Special teams coordinator John Baxter diagnosed Indiana’s punt return touchdown in the third quarter as the result of having tired bodies on the unit.
The Wolverines will be extended a reprieve Saturday against Penn State. The Nittany Lions’ offense operates much slower than Indiana’s. While the Hoosiers run 80.8 plays per game, Penn State runs 66.1, the fewest in the Big Ten. Michigan’s offense is in between, running 70.3 plays per game.
“We were trying to get the three-and-outs so fast and stay off the field,” Clark said of the game against Indiana. “But once we weren’t getting them, you could just see the pace was taking its toll on us.”
Clark, in his first year as a cornerback, has had the added task of working across from junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Though Lewis has developed a reputation as a shut-down defender, playing alongside him presents its own challenges.
As the season has progressed, Clark has felt as though opponents have shied away from targeting Lewis, a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award, awarded to the top defensive player in college football.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis has been the fourth-most targeted cornerback in college football this season. Still, Clark thinks teams have become more aware of Lewis’ prowess and have been throwing Clark’s way more frequently.
“When you try the other side, you’ve got Jourdan Lewis over there, so you’re pretty much not going to get anything, so I don’t blame the teams for trying,” Clark said.
Clark believes the key to ensuring he’s not beat on deep balls when opponents are consistently targeting him is staying with receivers on the line of scrimmage. Last year, when Clark played safety, he was already deep in the secondary from the start of the play, so there was less to do in terms of tracking the ball and staying with receivers from the line of scrimmage.
With two games left in the regular season, Clark finally feels as though the game has slowed down at the new position. Earlier in the season, he would sometimes lose track of his man at the line of scrimmage and panic would set in.
“Everything just starts racing,” Clark said. “I’m trying to just stay calm.”
At least, if his answer to Harbaugh’s question at the beginning of the week was true, he won’t be tired if that situation arises Saturday.