Last Saturday, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wanted to take some time to celebrate the No. 4 Michigan Football team’s emphatic victory over then-No. 10 Penn State.
But he couldn’t even make it to the locker room before his team had already begun to look forward.
“I’m coming up the tunnel, telling guys they had a great game and Blake (Corum) goes ‘On to Michigan State, coach,’ ” Harbaugh said after the game. “(I told the) offensive line (they had) a heck of a performance … ‘Coach, on to Michigan State.’ I told them, ‘Ok, I like where your heads are at. Let’s just keep it rolling.’ ”
That urgency to immediately turn the page hasn’t always been present under Harbaugh, but that has changed the past two seasons. And it’s further amplified now, as not every matchup holds as much weight as the impending Oct. 29 contest against the Spartans.
For all that the Wolverines accomplished last year, one major accolade eluded them: a win over their in-state rival.
Last season, both teams entered the matchup undefeated with major College Football Playoff implications at stake. Michigan raced out to a 30-14 third-quarter lead but a herculean effort by Kenneth Walker — combined with some costly mistakes by the Wolverines — allowed Michigan State to crawl back into the game. By the time the final whistle blew, the Spartans had stormed back for an epic 37-33 win.
That loss still stings for the Wolverines. And the players are the first to admit it.
“That bus ride home, it sucked,” senior guard Trevor Keegan said. “I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It still pisses me off, and we’re gonna do everything to prepare for this game. We got the bye week to get healthy, and we’re gonna be ready to roll.”
That bus ride is only about an hour in length, but for the players it felt like an eternity as they sulked in defeat.
“I remember sitting all the way in the back of the bus with Erick (All), didn’t say one word,” junior wide receiver Roman Wilson said. “Got to (Schembechler Hall), got home, didn’t say one word. Because we all know what we did. And we all know what we’ve got to do this year. We’ve just been waiting for that moment.”
This year, the storylines entering the matchup are different; it’s a battle of two teams moving in opposite directions. Michigan remains undefeated and firmly focused on returning to the College Football Playoff. The Spartans, meanwhile, are just 3-4 — stumbling in their third season under Mel Tucker.
But the Wolverines can hardly afford to take their rival lightly.
This game is more akin to the 2020 bout, when Michigan State came into town as a 21.5 point underdog. Despite appearing as a mismatch on paper, the Spartans were up for the challenge. They never trailed in the game and headed back to East Lansing with a 27-24 win and the Paul Bunyan trophy in hand.
And that’s where it’s sat ever since.
“We don’t have Paul right now,” junior defensive back R.J. Moten said. “…There’s dust growing where he is right now so we’ve gotta get him back. We’re just hungry and eager to play.”
Getting past Michigan State is not just another checkbox for Michigan — it’s a stated goal every single year.
For all the focus on beating Ohio State, the Wolverines have been nearly as embattled with the Spartans throughout Harbaugh’s tenure. He’s just 3-4 against them in his career and winless against Tucker so far.
Besides Harbaugh, one player who will be keen for some redemption is sophomore quarterback J.J McCarthy. Last year, McCarthy’s fourth quarter fumble proved detrimental, as Michigan State scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown on the subsequent drive.
Following Saturday’s triumph, McCarthy didn’t lament about his past failures against the Spartans. Instead, he echoed his teammates’ intensive focus on the rivalry game:
“We want Paul back,” McCarthy said. “We want him back.”
Michigan’s intentions are well stated. But actually finishing the job on the field — as it failed to do the last two years — is paramount.
Otherwise, Paul won’t be back. And another year’s worth of dust will settle on his shoulders.