Just seconds into Monday’s press conference, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh — his voice still strained from Saturday’s narrow victory over Illinois — acknowledged the challenge that lies ahead for his team.
“We know Ohio State’s our toughest competition,” Harbaugh said. “This will be our toughest test to date.”
The entire college football season has built up to this point: An undefeated tilt at the Horseshoe between No. 3 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State, with the victor primed for a trip to the Big Ten Championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff. It’s two undefeated titans, two historic programs and two bitter rivals.
So, Saturday, when the Wolverines take the field amid a swirling cauldron of red, everything will be at stake.
“If we don’t win this game,” senior tackle Ryan Hayes said, “the season really doesn’t mean that much.”
That is the cold hard truth. Just look at last season’s rendition, a top-five showdown that saw No. 5 Michigan stun the second-ranked Buckeyes. The win cemented the program’s turnaround, vaulting it to heights not yet reached in Harbaugh’s tenure. Ohio State, meanwhile, lost the luster of an 11-win season, stained by its failure in The Game.
One team will succumb to the same fate this season. The pressure is unrelenting.
No one will admit that. Sometimes, though, actions speak louder than words. The Buckeyes have been top of mind since last season ended in January. Each week, players and coaches carve out time to watch Ohio State film.
After Saturday’s win, Harbaugh affirmed that he would begin focusing on Ohio State later that evening, in about six hours. Monday, he offered a clarification.
“It was actually just a couple hours,” Harbaugh said, smiling. “By the time I got home, I was watching the Ohio State-Maryland game, so my mind switched over pretty quick.”
Which is to say: Nothing about this week, about this game, is normal.
“It’s the most important thing in the world right now,” senior cornerback Mike Sainristil said — and within these walls, that doesn’t feel like hyperbole.
This week, then, is as much about mitigating anxiety as anything else. Sainristil said that the emphasis is to be who they are, sticking to the habits and practices that have propelled them to this point. Harbaugh, meanwhile, struck a calm tone; he oozed with pride, repeatedly offering congratulations to his players for reaching this juncture, just as they envisioned in the offseason.
“We’re very grateful to be in this position to be playing in this game,” Harbaugh said. “Winner takes it all. It’s the kind of situation that gives you the opportunity to display how strong our team is. … It’s like superheroes. It’s through a strong opponent that you get to find out who you are.”
In that crucible, Harbaugh expects his team to thrive.
“They have taken on every challenge to date, and they’ve attacked it and been ready to play every single game for 60 minutes,” Harbaugh said. “I love this team. I think they’re made of the right stuff.”
That “stuff” is both Michigan’s top-scoring defense and domineering rushing attack. It’s the Bjorn Borg-like poise that Harbaugh sees in sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who has the ability of “turning water into wine.” It’s the resilience that manifested itself in unwavering determination Saturday, even as the Fighting Illini took a fourth-quarter lead.
Harbaugh went on to call his team “happy warriors” on a “happy mission.”
“Like I said, you have two teams that are like two superheroes going at each other,” he said. “And that’s why we’re so excited about being tested.”
He paused, pounding his chest.
“To find out what we’re made of.”
Players and coaches spent Monday toeing the line between appreciating the moment and acknowledging its implications. Perhaps Hayes said it best:
“If we don’t win this game, we’re not gonna be happy,” he said.
That’s a reality that Michigan hasn’t faced for the last 359 days. The Wolverines have relished the luxury of last year’s victory, though they have not allowed it to become consuming. They have only gotten better since that day, building upon last year’s revelatory success.
Their only focus is the task at hand.
That’s a memo Michigan lives by — focusing on one game at a time. Nonetheless, over the course of a winding season, Ohio State always loomed. Senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith said that coaches have planted seeds, letting them know what their preparations are geared towards. At the same time, they remained focus on the imminent game.
Now, those motives meld together. So, rather appropriately, Harbaugh ended his press conference just as he started, alluding to the implications.
“I know that our 11-0 doesn’t mean anything right now,” Harbaugh said. “It’s all about going 1-0.”