Around 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jim Harbaugh sat at a table inside Crisler Center and spoke about the identity of his Michigan football team at his postgame press conference.
“It’s a good sign, that you’re building a good callus,” Harbaugh said. “Play physical and not get beat up yourself. That’s a good gauge, probably the best gauge.”
Some 600 miles away, in Piscataway, Michigan State was nearing its 8 p.m. kickoff against Rutgers. After the Spartans won, coach Mark Dantonio said in his postgame press conference: “I can’t ever fault the effort of our players and how hard they play or their toughness.”
Over time, all great programs in college football establish an identity that opponents have in their minds when they take the field. Alabama has been a well-oiled machine in every phase of the game, lining up and dominating teams from the outset. Oregon and Baylor seek to push the tempo, pile up points and run opponents off the field. Harbaugh’s old team, Stanford, has kept its identity since he left: a hard-nosed, physical, blue-collar football team.
And yes, Michigan State has an identity, too. Dantonio has spent years building a powerhouse in East Lansing, one that works harder, acts tougher and plays more physically than its opponent. He has constructed an elite defense that powers the team’s success.
If it does, it’s because that’s the identity Harbaugh is working toward at Michigan. He wants a tough-minded, physical team that will win the battle at the line of scrimmage, using that to control both sides of the ball.
In the last five weeks, the Wolverines have done that. They have done enough on offense, kept their opponents from doing anything on defense and in the end won all five by a combined score of 160-14.
Each week, Harbaugh has taken major steps toward to build the identity he wants his team to have. Saturday, we find out how far that process has come.
The Wolverines face a team that, in each of the past two years, has done to them exactly what they have done to Oregon State, UNLV, Brigham Young, Maryland and Northwestern — dominate on both sides of the ball.
In those two games against Michigan State, Michigan averaged 12.5 first downs, 201 total yards, 420 total yards allowed, 7.5 tackles for loss allowed and a 49.1 completion percentage. Average scoring margin: minus-23.5.
Its opponents, in the past five games this season: 11 first downs, 150.2 total yards, 397.6 total yards allowed, 7.6 tackles for loss allowed and a 48.2 completion percentage. Average scoring margin: minus-29.2.
Put simply, 2015 Michigan looks similar to 2013 Michigan State at times. We’ll find out how similar they are on Saturday.
You hate to put such high stakes on one game — especially in October — but this one feels bigger. If Michigan knocks off Michigan State in the Big House on Saturday, Harbaugh’s rebuilding process is much further along than anyone could have expected, and as a bonus, the Wolverines are in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten race.
If Saturday goes like the past two years, well, then that’s two steps forward and one step back. In 2008, after Dantonio beat Michigan for the first time, he said, “this one counts a little more than one.”
The coaches will deny that this week, but the game this year feels that way, too. Before the season, no one could have predicted the Wolverines would have an opportunity like this. Not only are they rolling into the rivalry game next weekend, but the Spartans are reeling. They scored a late touchdown against woeful Rutgers on Saturday, slipping by only when the Scarlet Knights spiked the ball on fourth down in the final seconds. Their defense, which has been one of the nation’s best in recent years, ranks 34th against the run, 88th against the pass and 55th in points allowed. They haven’t been this vulnerable in years.
And, for the first time in three years, the game is at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines literally have their in-state rivals right where they want them.
Harbaugh has been reluctant to give the Spartans any bulletin-board material ahead of Saturday. In May, more than three months before he coached his first game at Michigan, Harbaugh praised the job Dantonio has done at Michigan State.
“We know we’re not the biggest guy on the block — Michigan State’s the biggest guy,” he told a group of high school coaches in Detroit. “They have done a tremendous job. We respect the job they’ve done, but we want to be that.”
In six weeks, Harbaugh has done some of what Dantonio did in his first three years at Michigan State. As much as each school tries to gain an edge on the other, and as different as the two coaches’ backgrounds are (Harbaugh a former Michigan and NFL quarterback, Dantonio a former South Carolina defensive back), they have almost the exact same opinion on how to run a football team.
That includes maintaining an even keel, no matter the result, reaching toward their ultimate goal. Saturday, after they coached two very different games — Harbaugh an impressive rout, Dantonio an uninspiring escape — they both faced similar questions about facing the other this week.
“Tremendous opponent,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to demand that we’re at our very best. That’s going to mean a great week of preparation and practice is in store for us. So we’ll move on even more quickly than usual, because it is such a good, worthy opponent next week. And we’ll be looking forward to it.”
This time, their responses weren’t similar.
“I’m going to just delay that response and focus on the present,” Dantonio said. “Getting on the plane, going home and making plans and looking for things we need to get better at and worry about our football team.”
And so the chess match began. Both coaches have had success, and both have won big games. Both will go about preparing their teams as they see fit. Saturday brings the ultimate measuring stick.