A.J. Henning stopped in his tracks, spotting the underthrown ball from Cade McNamara and pulled up. He stuck his hands out and leapt, stretching over the defender and bringing the ball in as he came down. The third-quarter play gained 28 yards, got the Wolverines into Penn State territory and set up a Hassan Haskins touchdown to cut the deficit to just three points a few minutes later.

It was one of the rare highlights of the game for Michigan on Saturday.

And on Michigan’s bench, a Daily reporter spotted Jim Harbaugh telling his players to get up and cheer.

If there’s a single moment that captures the Wolverines’ season from hell, that’s it. Not the emotion on display when an overtime Rutgers field-goal attempt went wide. Not a loss to a rebuilding Michigan State program that gifted seven turnovers and the Scarlet Knights’ first Big Ten win in three years the week earlier. Not getting run off the field by Wisconsin and not a three-decade win streak getting trampled over against Indiana.

No, this takes the top spot. The head football coach at an iconic football school needing to prod his players to stand up and cheer as if it was Little League. How utterly damning.

“Something like that, saying it’s a bad culture, they’re not there every day with us working, grinding, watching film, working out, getting there early, getting treatment,” senior offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said. “So it’s noise that I don’t worry about, that I don’t listen to much. I play for the guys around me and listen to my coaches.”

Later, pressed on the culture, he said this: “If the powers that be decide there is a problem, then so be it. … I listen to my coaches, I believe in them.”

Steuber’s right that it’s unfair to speculate on what goes on in Schembechler Hall in the middle of each week. We’re not there. We only see the end product.

But if the end product is handing a directionless Penn State its first win of the season, with Harbaugh needing to tell his players when to cheer, then something is irreparably wrong.

If the preparation was there, Joe Milton wouldn’t have wondered who Michigan State linebacker Antjuan Simmons is. Taylor Upshaw would have had more to say about Penn State running back Keyvon Lee after he ran for 134 yards than, “I’m sure he’s a talented back.” 

If the culture was there, then Harbaugh wouldn’t have had to do his best Jeb Bush impression in the third quarter on Saturday. 

The Michigan football program finds itself in a hard situation. Between injuries and opt-outs, the top-end talent on the roster is all but gone. They’re depending on the remnants of a decimated 2017 class and a thin 2018 class to be the upperclassmen leading the team. They’re subject to intense COVID-19 protocols and — though they haven’t needed to go on pause — offensive line coach Ed Warinner made reference last Wednesday to guys missing time because of contact tracing.

That’s all real, and there’s every chance the season would have gone differently if not for a global pandemic out of anyone’s control.

But every FBS program in the country is dealing with the same issues on some level. And this season — and all the baggage that came with it — is exactly what Jim Harbaugh very publicly asked for.

“We’re gonna be ready to play a game in two weeks,” he said on Sept. 5. “Get the pads on and our guys have trained without a pause since June 15. So that’s our position. We’re ready to play as soon as we possibly can.”

He said those words at a protest to which he showed up, marched on the Diag and publicly went against his boss’s boss, the University president. And for what?

“Getting better every day,” Stueber said, when asked what there was left to play for. “Obviously we still have the big team, OSU, at the end of the year. We just need to click on all cylinders and we’re in contention for that game.”

Setting aside the almost laughable notion that Michigan can compete with Ohio State right now, it’s hard to imagine that University administrators aren’t asking themselves the same question right now. 

“That’s much more of a medical decision and it’s much more of a University responsibility than it is a football coach’s decision” University president Mark Schlissel said in October, when asked about Harbaugh’s antics. “I didn’t play professional football and coach a college team and coach a pro team, and Jim didn’t go to medical school and do a residency and become a licensed physician.”

What is he getting out of this arrangement right now? There are no fans in the stands, and it’s hard to imagine there would be many if that were allowed. Nobody is making donations based on a 2-4 trainwreck of a football season. This is another headache in a semester full of them, nothing more.

You could say on that day in September that Michigan was motivated to play a season if it got that chance. What exactly happened between then and that moment late in the third quarter on Saturday is hard to say, but it wasn’t anything good.

The program looks broken, the players frustrated and tired. There are three games left, and it would be an act of mercy if they could hit fast forward.

You’d say the misery reached its bottom on Saturday when Harbaugh needed to tell his players to get up and cheer, but Michigan has shown an uncanny ability to sink to lower and lower depths each week. 

Lord only knows what the next three games have in store.

Sears can be reached at searseth@umich.edu or on Twitter @ethan_sears.


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