Six weeks ago, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh reached into his bank of allusions for a motivational tool. That week, the Wolverines took on Michigan State, which had dominated them for the previous two years by an average of 23.5 points.
Harbaugh urged his team to move past that history, referencing a quote from “The Lion King”: “The past can hurt. You can either run from it, or embrace it and learn from it.”
Fast forward to this week, when the No. 10 Michigan football team (6-1 Big Ten, 9-2 overall) hosts Ohio State, and the quote applies again — especially for Michigan’s defense. The Wolverines have kept the past two meetings with the Buckeyes close, losing on a last-minute two-point conversion in 2013 and falling behind only late in the game last season. But the defense has been the issue, allowing 42 points in each of those games.
“You can’t worry about the past,” said junior safety Dymonte Thomas. “The past is the past for a reason. The only thing you can do is look forward, so the only thing we’re looking forward to is the game Saturday.”
The Buckeyes have averaged 471 yards in the past two games against Michigan, including 313 on the ground at 7.4 per carry. Quarterback J.T. Barrett broke his foot in last year’s game, but only after totaling 265 yards and three touchdowns. He will be back under center against Michigan on Saturday.
“But this year, we’re a new team,” Thomas said. “We’ve got a new coaching staff. And we’ve got a lot of players stepping it up this year.”
While the Buckeyes gashed two solid Michigan defenses in the past two years, this year’s edition is even better. Despite struggles against opponents such as Minnesota and Indiana in the second half of the season, the Wolverines appear to be back on track after a strong performance at Penn State. They’re focused on replicating games like those, not specifically on improving from two lackluster performances against Ohio State.
“If we do our techniques and our fundamentals, it’s kind of hard to beat us,” said senior safety Jarrod Wilson. “So we’re just worried about ourselves.”
Neither the coaches nor the players have discussed past games against the Buckeyes, according to Wilson, but they still have their keys to this week’s game.
They have to limit Ohio State’s “explosive players,” as Wilson called them: Barrett, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receivers Michael Thomas and Braxton Miller. In preparation for Saturday’s game, Michigan watched different clips of every game the Buckeyes have played this season.
That practice helps the Wolverines stay focused on this week, though no game of the rivalry exists in a vacuum. Wilson, who is from Akron, Ohio, still talks to former players about their careers. Their record against Ohio State is always one of the first topics to come up. Wilson, meanwhile, is 0-3, which gives him extra motivation for Senior Day on Saturday.
“It’s always an extra edge — one last time to give it all I got and hopefully come out with a win,” he said.
Recent history is not on Wilson’s side, but that’s only history. The Wolverines are confident this year will be different.
“Of course,” said junior defensive end Taco Charlton. “That’s why we’re playing. It’s a new year, new game.”