After Chad Henne took a knee to seal a hard-fought victory over Iowa, there were no visible signs of relief from the Maize and Blue.
No wild celebrations. No hugging at midfield. No stampedes to the student section.
The Wolverines had just emerged unscathed from a brutal six-game stretch, setting the stage – according to pundits and fans alike – for a monumental clash in Columbus Nov. 18.
You’re excited about that game. I’m excited about that game. Your grandma’s best friend’s second cousin is excited about that game.
The anticipation is completely understandable, given the potentially earth-shattering ramifications of this year’s Michigan-Ohio State matchup.
But this Wolverine squad is too smart to fall into that line of thinking.
“Everyone’s talking about No. 1, No. 2,” junior running back Mike Hart said. “Everyone’s talking about O-State, O-State O-State. But we know we have games before O-State – obviously that’s the big one , but we have games before that. So that’s where leadership comes in.”
All season long, Michigan has had plenty of reasons to let down its guard.
After beating Notre Dame, the Wolverines could’ve soaked up the hype and looked past Wisconsin. A few hiccups at the beginning notwithstanding, they rolled to a two-touchdown victory.
Likewise, Michigan could’ve let Michigan State’s shocking loss to Illinois affect its approach against the Spartans. But the Wolverines stayed focused and crushed their in-state rivals.
And on Saturday, Michigan could’ve underestimated an Iowa team coming off a stomach-churning upset loss to Indiana. Again, the Wolverines prepared for Iowa’s best shot and successfully deflected it.
So what if Northwestern, Ball State and Indiana don’t carry the same prestige as those traditionally solid Big Ten squads? The undefeated Wolverines have come too far to slack off with a potentially golden finish in sight.
“Everyone knows we played our toughest stretch of games,” Hart said. “That’s not a lie, everyone knows it. So the fact is, what are we gonna do these next three weeks? Are we gonna fall wayside, so we’re not ready when we get to O-State? Or are we gonna get better every week? That’s what we want to do. We want to get better every week, or we’re not gonna be prepared to play Ohio State.”
All signs point to the Wolverines backing up Hart’s words in the upcoming weeks. For one, the memory of last season’s 7-5 record remains seared into the psyches of the returning players. The Wolverines know all too well the gut wrenching feeling of blowing games they should’ve won. If that’s not motivation to practice hard, I’m not sure what is.
Plus, the team still feels as if it has something to prove after it was virtually ignored as a preseason contender. Obviously, things have changed since the Wolverines were ranked 14th in the preseason, and the national media is currently abuzz about No. 2 Michigan’s return to the big stage. But don’t expect the attention to get into the Wolverines’ heads – they know that the hype can vanish just as quickly as it appeared.
“The quicker you get the buzz, the quicker you’re going to lose it,” senior co-captain LaMarr Woodley said. “You only get the buzz when you’re winning. As soon as you lose, somebody’s going to say ‘Oh, I knew they were going to lose.’ So I definitely don’t enjoy the buzz, because it can get taken away like that.”
Of course, barring a complete catastrophe, the Wolverines will be 11-0 heading into Ohio State week. But Michigan must prepare the way it has for the past six games, treating each opponent as a serious threat to steal away its undefeated season.
Because the Wolverines still have plenty to work on before taking on the Buckeye behemoth.
Against Northwestern, Ball State and Indiana, Michigan must:
– Learn how to put up points in the first half.
– Tighten up its pass defense.
– Redevelop a vertical passing game given Mario Manningham’s uncertain status.
– Establish large enough leads to give backups playing time, keeping the starters fresh for Ohio State.
Those things can be done – I wouldn’t put anything past this coaching staff – but only if the Wolverines continue to treat each game seriously.
It won’t be easy. Hart admitted that the next three contests would present a serious psychological challenge for the Wolverines.
“Of course it’s hard,” Hart said. “But that’s what makes great teams, is coming out here and being prepared to play games like this, to see where your focus is. That’s when it shows up, that you have great leadership.”
My suspicion is that the Wolverines – their coaches, their captains and their upperclassmen in particular – will stay focused against the next three less challenging opponents.
And if they do, the Buckeye faithful might end up feeling a little bit blue when the game of the century comes to the Horseshoe.
– Singer can be reached at email@example.com.