EAST LANSING — Thirty minutes after the Michigan football team coughed up a 16-point third quarter lead in a crippling loss to Michigan State, Jim Harbaugh sat at a podium, his arms crossed and voice monotone.
A reporter raised his hand and offered a question: How tough is this to take?
Harbaugh paused, letting the words linger. Then he exhaled.
“That didn’t go the way we wanted to,” Harbaugh said.
All season, the Wolverines have vowed that they are different from past Michigan teams. The refrain has emerged as a teamwide rallying cry, manifesting itself in different ways.
Sometimes, the mantra is direct, like when junior quarterback Cade McNamara quipped that “Michigan teams in the past” would have lost against Nebraska. Or, it’s more subtle: allusions to a revamped culture and a team that actually relishes playing football, particularly on the road.
Through seven games, Michigan fans had good reason to drink the kool-aid. The sixth-ranked Wolverines were undefeated and, for the most part, obliterating their opponents. They trounced Wisconsin in Madison, a notoriously difficult place to play, and snatched a victory out of the jaws of defeat in Lincoln, handling adversity with grace.
But on Saturday, Michigan devolved into a team of the past, wilting in a manner that fans have grown accustomed to in recent years.
For most of the game, it looked as if the Wolverines would notch the signature win of Harbaugh’s seven-year tenure as Michigan’s coach. This wasn’t just a fleeting moment. This was a game fully within their grasp.
When junior receiver Mike Sainristil glided into the endzone for a 19-yard touchdown halfway through the third quarter, the Wolverines boasted a 30-14 lead. Michigan had transformed Spartan Stadium into a cathedral. Sainristil struck a Paul Bunyan pose in celebration, as if beckoning the fabled trophy back to Ann Arbor.
And then, as if on a whim, the Wolverines collapsed.
This wasn’t so much Michigan State winning as it was Michigan losing. Unforced errors, atypical for a team that prides itself on playing a brand of mistake-free football, proved abundant.
Most of the miscues were preventable, an indictment on the coaching staff. The defense, a revelation through seven games, looked frazzled in the face of the Spartans’ fast-paced, up-tempo offense.
Twice, the Wolverines were flagged for having too many men on the field. On loop, they hurried groups of players on and off the field, leading to confusion and uncovered receivers. Not once did Michigan adjust, a strikingly undisciplined approach.
On the other side of the ball, perhaps the most baffling move was Michigan’s unwavering commitment to true freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy. Early in the fourth quarter, McCarthy fumbled deep in Michigan State territory, but a Spartan incidentally kicked the ball out of bounds, allowing the Wolverines to retain possession.
On the ensuing Michigan drive, Harbaugh elected to trot out McCarthy first in a tempt of fate. Sure enough, McCarthy fumbled the play action exchange with sophomore running back Blake Corum, a costly turnover and, in hindsight, a crucial turning point. And it’s not so much McCarthy’s fault as it is the coaching staff.
“It’s a learning experience,” sixth-year center Andrew Vastardis said of the myriad of miscues.
That may hold true for a predominantly young team with an inexperienced starting quarterback, a cohort of players not accustomed to the stage or the stakes. But for Harbaugh? This isn’t a learning experience but rather the same tired story.
Harbaugh knew the implications of this game; he laid them out on Monday, conceding that it carried an “elimination mindset.” The winner, Harbaugh noted, would benefit from a “boost” to their chances at a championship.
Michigan State, buoyed by the victory, is a formidable contender, both for a Big Ten title and a berth in the College Football Playoff. All of a sudden, Spartans coach Mel Tucker has entrenched his team as the dominant in-state program.
As for Michigan? The feel-good momentum from the 7-0 start is dashed. Vastardis described the postgame locker room as “somber.” Harbaugh’s message to the team was three-part: stick together, grow from the experience and know that the season isn’t over.
His players echoed the resilient, optimistic tone.
“This season’s not over,” Vastardis announced while redshirt junior edge rusher David Ojabo nodded along in agreement. “Not even close.”
In theory, it’s not. There’s a rather straightforward path to a 9-3 season and a New Year’s Six bowl.
Yet, in a way, part of Michigan’s season ended inside Spartan Stadium. Gone is the blissful ignorance surrounding a revamped coaching staff, a refined culture and a “different” Michigan team.
Afterwards, with a majority of Wolverines already having made their way up the tunnel, sophomore receiver A.J. Henning lingered on the 25-yard-line. He stood, watching, while the Spartans bum rushed the corner of the endzone, Paul Bunyan in tow, serenaded by the marching band and a raucous student section.
It could have, perhaps should have, been Michigan celebrating. But instead, for Harbaugh and the Wolverines, it’s the same old story.
Greenspan can be reached on Twitter @jared_greenspan