CHAMPAIGN — There was a time in Jim Harbaugh’s past when, leading the game by a small margin and facing fourth-and-short in the opponent’s territory, he opted to kick the field goal. It came back to bite him, and his team lost.
Harbaugh won’t go into specifics about which game it was or who it was against. But the truth is, the semantics aren’t really important. That exact situation could describe nearly every football coach in the country. Games are lost every week on the risks coaches don’t take, as much as the ones they do.
What’s important is that on Saturday, facing a pivot point in a game and possibly a season, Harbaugh remembered that game. Knowing that this wasn’t just about analytics, but about confidence and trust, Harbaugh took the risk and averted a crisis. Partially because of it, Michigan walked out with a 42-25 win against Illinois.
“The offense was hungry to do it,” Harbaugh said. “So made the decision to go for it on that fourth down, and the guys came through.”
The Wolverines went up by 28 early, then teetered on the brink of disaster as they allowed 25 unanswered points. Michigan drove down the field but stalled, facing fourth-and-2 at Illinois 13-yard line.
A lot of coaches would kick in that situation, in hopes of getting back some semblance of confidence or momentum, not wanting to risk an empty possession with the bottom daring to fall out.
But the Wolverines knew what they wanted to do. The offense trotted out and senior quarterback Shea Patterson took the ball himself, running for the first down. Two plays later, Michigan was in the end zone.
“We all knew that we wanted to get the first down and end the game on our terms,” said sophomore wide receiver Ronnie Bell.
Nobody doubted the call. The Wolverines wanted to finally answer back, and all another field goal would’ve done was put Michigan up six, where another Illini score could beat them. Going for it would put a touchdown within reach, and a touchdown was what the Wolverines really needed.
The truth is, to truly move the pendulum, Michigan needed more than just points. It needed to string together a full drive again, to get some mojo back. And everyone on the field knew it.
Asked after the game why he went for it, Harbaugh could’ve mentioned analytics, like he did after two failed fourth-down conversions last month against Army. He could’ve said that the wind made kicking difficult. He could’ve maintained that kicker Quinn Nordin had already missed once, from 34, or that the other kicker, Jake Moody, missed from a similar distance last week. But he didn’t say any of those things.
Instead, he made it clear that this was about trust.
“We put the ball in Shea Patterson’s hands,” Harbaugh said. “He is tenacious in those kinds of situations in these kinds of big moments and I felt really good that he could pick it up for us.”
Harbaugh’s trust in the offense — and Patterson, who started out well but reverted to his early-season struggles after halftime — to make a play provided one shot of confidence. The fact that the play worked added another. The rest of the game, the Wolverines looked how they had at the beginning. Driving down the field on offense. Making stops on defense. Playing like a team assured of itself.
“Definitely, our momentum spiked from there,” said redshirt freshman tight end Luke Schoonmaker.
We’ll never know what would’ve happened had Harbaugh chosen the “safe” option and kicked. It’s quite possible that the Wolverines still would’ve won. After all, Michigan tacked on another touchdown two possessions later and Illinois didn’t score again.
But once again, that’s not the important part.
The important part is that the call sent a message to the offense: I trust you. You aren’t going to blow this.
The important part is that through all their ups and downs this season, when the Wolverines most needed to make a play, they were given the opportunity.
And the important part is that, facing that kind of situation, they trusted each other, too — and converted.
Standing on the field after the game, the Michigan players treated it like a win. Not a “we almost blew this” win, an honest-to-goodness, hard-fought win.
No matter the eventual outcome, kicking a field goal — into the wind with two kickers who have struggled — would have sent a very different message.