Two seasons ago in mid-October, Michigan held a 5-1 record that seemed to paper over greater concerns. The Wolverines went into halftime with Cincinnati and Air Force in close games at home. John O’Korn struggled to replace Wilton Speight at quarterback after he went down with an injury and the offense lagged its way to a loss at home against Michigan State. It took two overtimes to put away Indiana in Bloomington the week after that.
Two days later, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh got asked about the next game on the schedule — a prime-time matchup with Penn State, a white out and a College Gameday visit to Happy Valley.
“I’m excited about it,” Harbaugh told reporters then, “and if you talk to the players about how they feel, I feel like they would feel the same way. Excited for the opportunity. They’ve been on the big stage already this year multiple times in big games and having another crack at this, knowing our guys the way I do, they’re competitors.”
You probably already know what happened next. If you don’t, here’s a refresher: Penn State’s Saquon Barkley took the game’s second snap for a 69-yard touchdown, and it got worse from there. All the problems the first six games of the season foreshadowed came to pass. The Wolverines lost, 42-13, all but eliminating themselves from Playoff and Big Ten contention and before the season was over, they would lose three more times for the worst mark of Harbaugh’s tenure.
It’s hard not to see the parallels.
Again, Michigan is 5-1 in mid-October heading into a matchup with Penn State. Again, there have been a series of less-than-convincing wins — double-overtime at home against Army, scoring 10 points at home against Iowa, and most recently, Illinois pulling within a three-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter. Again, the game is in prime time, with College Gameday in Happy Valley, and there will be a white out.
“Every loss sticks with me,” said senior safety Josh Metellus on Tuesday. “That one (in 2017) really stuck. That could’ve been the real defining part of our season. We lost that game and we went downhill from there.”
Of course, that loss was the defining point in Michigan’s season — just not in the way Metellus wanted it to be. It put the Wolverines’ flaws on display for everyone to see. It ended the chances of meeting their goals.
If they lose on Saturday, be it in the same spectacular fashion or not, it could set the season on the same course as two years ago. Michigan isn’t expected to win this game — Vegas currently has Penn State as a nine-point favorite and, going by the eye test, it’s hard to argue the Wolverines are the better team. Inside of Schembechler Hall, predictably, belief has permeated on both sides of the ball.
“We execute, there’s nobody in the country better than us,” said senior linebacker Josh Uche this Monday, speaking about the defense. “And that’s a fact.”
Uche, minutes earlier, had taken the media to task for calling out the defense after the Wolverines’ loss at Wisconsin. He took the criticism to heart, adamantly contending that it was misplaced, that those outside the team couldn’t possibly understand schematics well enough to accurately comment on things of that nature.
When a reporter pointed out the bottom line — Michigan gave up 35 points to the Badgers and let them run for 359 yards — must mean something, Uche bristled. “That’s what y’all was claiming,” he said.
To Uche’s credit, the defense, even to the untrained eye, has been significantly improved since that day in Madison. The stats back that up, as the Wolverines are third in defensive SP+. They have won three straight games, and have the defense to thank, as it’s given up just 28 total points in that span.
“We feel a lot better. We’ve been feeling like we’re getting back to our roots,” Metellus said. “We know we got a lotta guys that can play football. We all know what we’re capable of doing.”
For the last few weeks, that’s been a common theme. After the Wolverines scored just 10 points against Iowa, Harbaugh claimed the offense was hitting its stride and later in the week, senior quarterback Shea Patterson backed him up. Both fell back on what fans and media couldn’t see — in practice and on tape — to argue that the score wasn’t representative.
And, to the credit of Harbaugh and Patterson, the offense clicked for stretches against Illinois in ways that it hadn’t all year. Michigan averaged 6.1 yards per run, and came out looking to hand the ball off with eight straight runs. Patterson stepped up in the fourth quarter with a clutch 79-yard drive, perhaps his best moment of the year.
Doing all of that against a team of the Nittany Lions’ caliber — one that could easily beat even a good defense — is another matter entirely. So is doing it against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. Throughout Harbaugh’s tenure, and never more so than 2017, an inability to get it done against those kinds of teams has come to be the nagging factor underlying any success.
“We already got a loss,” Metellus said. “We can’t afford another one.”
Win or lose, Saturday will set the Wolverines’ season on its defining course. So if Michigan wants to back up its words and make the public eat theirs, it should start before the second snap.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears.