The Michigan football team has taken its share of lumps in recent weeks. The Wolverines have won three games in a row against lesser opponents, but two of the victories have come because of last-second stands by the defense.
Making matters worse, injuries have taken their toll. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow is likely out for the season with a pectoral injury, adding to the decimation of a defensive front that was already playing without sophomore defensive tackle Bryan Mone and senior defensive end Mario Ojemudia.
It’s plausible that those absences led to Saturday’s struggles against the run, in which Michigan’s defense, once the best in the nation, surrendered 307 yards on the ground.
Still, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh insisted Monday that his players are not downtrodden in the least heading into the final two games of the regular season.
“No one’s acting beat up that I know of,” Harbaugh said.
“We’ve got a bounce in our step. We’re ready to go.”
Harbaugh likened the final stretch of the season to when he was a kid playing pickup basketball during the summer at Pattengill Elementary School in Ann Arbor. The kids who won the game stayed on, and Harbaugh’s goal was always to play until it was time for lunch.
The college football equivalent to lunch, Harbaugh said, would be playing in the championship game of the College Football Playoff. He has stressed the playoff mentality to his players. If they lose to Penn State or Ohio State, their season will culminate in a bowl game without the opportunity to play for the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis or even a less probable national title.
“I personally love the playoff type of situation and atmosphere,” Harbaugh said. “You win, you get to keep playing.”
Senior linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone said the possibility of winning the Big Ten championship has motivated the players throughout the season. It has been the clear end goal for the team all season long.
For most of the season, though, the players have preferred to discuss the game in front of them rather than the big picture. However, the thought of advancing past the game against the Buckeyes has crossed their minds on many occasions.
“If you haven’t thought about playing in Indianapolis (for the Big Ten Championship Game) or playing in the top four, you’re in the wrong place,” said senior tight end A.J. Williams. “Especially with the position we’re in, we’ve just got to handle our business, and if it’s meant for us to be there, then we have to be.”
Williams said the Wolverines don’t need vocal reminders about the importance of the final two games of the regular season. They know the stakes and are not avoiding them. They see the scenarios when they peruse Twitter, and they know exactly what needs to happen.
“If things go a certain way, Indianapolis, here we come,” Williams said.
The most likely scenario for the division to play out in Michigan’s favor involves some help from Ohio State. Before his press conference ended Monday, Harbaugh was asked if he will be rooting for the Buckeyes to beat Michigan State on Saturday. If that occurs, and the Wolverines beat Penn State, then Michigan will play Ohio State for the Big Ten East title on Nov. 28. The winner would advance to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Harbaugh deflected the question, referring to his earlier pickup basketball analogy in explaining that he cares only about his team’s performance.
“There was only one court at Pattengill,” Harbaugh said.