ANN ARBOR, Mich. — If someone had wandered into Michigan’s postgame news conference knowing nothing about what happened in the three hours prior, they might have thought the Wolverines had just beaten Ohio State, clinched a Big Ten championship or won a game in the final seconds.
The mood could only be described as jubilant. Coach Jim Harbaugh was grinning from ear to ear as he cracked jokes, bantered with his dad and dug deep in his repertoire of animal metaphors. When he was done, the Harbaugh family members and Michigan supporters in the back of the room responded with a smattering of applause.
“It’s not just a lion with a good roar,” Harbaugh said, describing his offensive line and his Michigan team more generally. “The teeth were shown today.”
That level of elation would be notable after any game, but especially a game like this one, a relatively mundane 31-7 victory against Rutgers. The No. 2 Wolverines (4-0) have won 16 consecutive games in the Big Ten, many of them more aesthetically pleasing or historically significant than this one. So why all the celebration?
“I think the reason we feel how we feel is, simply, coach Harbaugh’s back,” defensive back Mike Sainristil said.
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That’s true. Harbaugh was back, coaching his team on the sideline for the first time all season. Whether he was delivering the pregame speech, pleading with the officials to pick up a flag or gesturing to fire up the crowd, Harbaugh let his emotions flow. His players responded in kind.
“He was just happy as heck,” running back Blake Corum said. “As he says, Cool Guy Jim.”
“I think that’s what most people refer to me as,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh’s return stretches the boundaries of a feel-good story, considering he missed the first three games while serving a school-imposed suspension for violations of NCAA rules. But in terms of narrative drama, it’s pretty much the only story at Michigan. The Wolverines have yet to play a close game or face a team on their own level. They haven’t needed to be at their best, and for the most part, they haven’t been.
Rutgers was a step up from the three teams Michigan faced in nonconference play, and it showed in the first half. Until Sainristil intercepted a fourth-down screen pass and returned it 71 yards for a touchdown, the Scarlet Knights were very much in the game. For a team that’s used to winning and winning big, Michigan’s emphatic celebration would have seemed strange without some additional context.
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Earlier in the week, Harbaugh wondered aloud if his team was feeling pressure to win every game by 40 points. Michigan’s fill-in head coaches were under pressure to make sure the team didn’t miss a beat during Harbaugh’s absence, and the players were, too. When the running game was just OK, Corum and Donovan Edwards had to answer for it. The pressure to be great was there, all the time.
Along with a lackluster nonconference schedule, that isn’t a recipe to have a lot of fun. You could see it on players’ faces after last week’s 31-6 victory against Bowling Green. The Wolverines won by 25 points, but no one was impressed. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy threw three interceptions and seemed to be trying to hit a home run on every throw. Compared to Saturday, the difference in postgame mood was night and day.
That makes sense under the circumstances. The Wolverines have set high standards for themselves by winning 29 of their past 32 games. The way this season started, living up to those standards was going to be almost impossible. When Harbaugh returned from his suspension, he seemed to sense that what his team needed most was someone to lighten the mood.
“It was just great seeing his energy in the locker room after the win,” Corum said. “He’s going to have a good rest of the day.”
There was plenty to nitpick from Saturday’s game, including miscues on special teams, a few breakdowns in pass coverage and continued uncertainty on the offensive line. There was a lot to like, too. By accentuating the positives, Harbaugh seemed to be doing everything he could to build up his players’ confidence and restore the “happy mission” mantra that defined last year’s run to the College Football Playoff.
“There’s so much good,” Harbaugh said. “The defense, 77 yards on the ground on 23 carries. That’s a run wall. That’s big-boy football.”
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In hindsight — and in foresight, too — this team would have benefited from a more competitive nonconference schedule. However it happened, Michigan should never be in the position of playing Colorado State, Hawaii, UConn, East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green in back-to-back seasons.
The lackluster schedule means this team could start 9-0 without having to play anything better than its B-plus game. Which raises the question: When the Wolverines need their A-plus game against Penn State and Ohio State in November, will they be able to find it?
The challenge is to create a sense of urgency when the Wolverines are flat-out better than every team they will face in September and October. Once winning starts to feel mundane, losing is the thing that comes next. The challenge for this team is to remember that every win is worth celebrating, flaws and all.
Saturday was one of those wins. It wasn’t a work of art, but don’t tell that to Harbaugh. He was going to savor every second of it.
“It was great to be back in the action, where the competition is,” he said. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than on the sideline, coaching our team.”
(Photo: Steven King / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)