While Michigan State celebrated a game-clinching interception on Saturday, Jim Harbaugh stalked the sidelines. He paced up and down, seemingly unsure what to do after Michigan relinquished a 16-point lead and its chance at a marquee victory.
Two days later, the pain of the loss partly subsided, Harbaugh again resembled his passionate, fiery self.
“Resolve is to get back to work and get prepared for this next opponent,” the Michigan coach said on Monday. “That’s the way I woke up today. Determined. Attack with the new resolve that it’s a new season. A new day, a new week, a new four-game season. Let’s get at it.
“My approach, very similar to a fighter. You get up, referee wipes your gloves and you come back even more determined, with even more resolve to prepare, to work harder, to find a way to finish and to win.”
The players appeared to match Harbaugh’s mentality. Monday afternoon, the Wolverines gathered for a players-only meeting inside Schembechler Hall, a decision put forth by the appointed leadership council. According to junior receiver Mike Sainristil, it’s the third such meeting the team has had this season.
“Just being able to re-center our focus as a team,” Sainristil said.
Individually, each player spent the past two days decompressing in different ways. Junior defensive end Mike Morris took 48 hours to get the loss out of his system, but has since switched his focus to Indiana. Sainristil watched film on a select number of plays, which prompted a realization:
“We have a lot left in us as a team,” Sainristil said. “We’re still trending in the right direction. There’s a lot left on the table for us. There’s big things still to come.”
Sainristil and the remaining contingent of Michigan’s veteran players have stressed the importance of setting an example. None of the freshmen have dealt with the aftermath of a loss. The sophomores haven’t been on a team that handles a loss well.
As a part of the leadership council, Sainristil has helped to curate the team’s new rallying cry.
“We’re still in this,” Sainristil said. “There’s no need to worry. We just have to bounce back and take this past weekend for what it is, go over film and just correct our mistakes. Learn where we can get better.”
There are, of course, several tangible areas in which the Wolverines can improve. Even before this weekend, Michigan had plenty of flaws; the Spartans merely magnified them.
Harbaugh specifically noted three realms that the Wolverines are focusing on this week.
The effort starts with Michigan remedying its shambolic defensive substitutions. Mike Macdonald’s defensive system is predicated on rotations, which is meant to keep players fresh. On Saturday, that plan collapsed in the face of Michigan State’s up-tempo offense, leading to multiple flags and rampant confusion.
“Usually we’re off the field very quickly, we do it at a timely pace,” Morris said. “This week, it just didn’t happen. Their pace was too fast. It was just happening way too fast, it just didn’t match up.”
On the offensive side of the ball, Harbaugh stressed the need for cleaner run-blocking to ensure that the running backs aren’t hit on the line of scrimmage. Michigan State held the Wolverines to a season-low 146 rushing yards, eliminating Michigan’s true bread and butter.
The culmination of those offensive woes is the inability to finish inside the red zone. On Saturday, the Wolverines only mustered a field goal on four separate trips to the red zone, an issue that Harbaugh lamented as “a big one every week.”
As the season reaches the home stretch, it’s imperative that the Wolverines build upon those three aspects. Ultimately, Harbaugh is confident that they will progress, rather than wilt, moving forward.
“I’ve seen the team for a long time now, the way they respond,” Harbaugh said. “Whether it’s a setback or chatter, I know how they’re going to respond…which is with more resolve, more determined to prepare and get ready for our next ballgame.”