ANN ARBOR, Mich.–If you think one loss to Michigan State ruined Michigan’s 2015 season, well, think again. And rewatch the previous three years of Wolverines football.
Those were bad years.
This year is a good one, and first-year coach Jim Harbaugh has performed near-miracles since taking over his alma mater back on Dec. 30, 2014. The Wolverines are nationally relevant. Truly, really and seriously relevant.
Why else would people be whining about Michigan’s 27-23 loss Saturday night to the Spartans in Ann Arbor?
It wasn’t the same deal as in 2013 when everyone expected the Spartans to win–and they did, 29-6. It wasn’t a thing like 2014 when most expected another Spartans victory–and they got it, 35-11.
Saturday’s game meant something. And Michigan was the overwhelming favorite. Poor officiating greatly influenced the flow and feel, but the game was important for both schools, not just No. 7-ranked Michigan State (7-0, 3-0 B1G).
It could have clinched a bowl-bid for the No. 12-ranked Wolverines. Not a playoff bid like some felt was all but a given. Not a guaranteed ticket to the Big Ten championship, either. A bowl game. Harbaugh’s a great coach, but expecting the world right off the bat doesn’t make sense.
Some people set themselves up for failure by thinking otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that 2015 is in the tank.
In 2014, the Wolverines appeared in the… wait.
They didn’t go to a bowl.
They finished 5-7 and were embarrassed in East Lansing. They were manhandled by everyone this past season. Home wasn’t sacred. This season, they’re doing the handling. Home is sacred. And prior to a shocking last-play loss to the Spartans, the Wolverines were riding higher than anyone in the land.
They were fresh off three straight shutouts and on the verge of cracking the top 10.
Relevant. Nationally relevant–and it’s just 10 months after hiring Harbaugh, who most certainly has Michigan (5-2, 2-1 B1G) headed for something special this season. Eight or nine wins should be the new expectation. With exception to Ohio State, Michigan appears much stronger than its remaining list of Minnesota, Rutgers, Indiana and Penn State.
A marquee bowl game seems likely.
Despite losing to Michigan State for the seventh time in nine years, the Wolverines have something to play for in 2015. Players’ attitudes are different this season, and they appear equipped to deal with a little adversity. What do you think the past three have been? One night hardly compares.
Moving past a gut-wrenching loss starts with getting back to what’s worked all year–and that’s consistently great preparation.
“Right now, we’re just going to go look at the film and see what we can execute better offensively and special teams-wise,” said redshirt junior defensive tackle Willie Henry. “You know, we left some plays out there on the field that we all wish we could get back–for both sides (of the ball), for both teams. So, we’ve got to execute better.”
Visibly upset, Henry stood firm while fielding questions during the postgame media session. There weren’t any tears in the locker room, said Henry, but he couldn’t deny the fact that Saturday was the definite low point of 2015.
“You go out there and you play your heart out,” said Henry, who led Michigan with three tackles for a loss, including two sacks. “You play against a rival team, playing for Paul Bunyan, and to go out there and, you know, just lose it in the final seconds like that–you know, it just hurt.
It hurt everybody. I don’t think there was anybody going around the locker room with a smile, enjoying that loss. That hurts everybody.”
Entering Saturday, the Wolverines had already proven that improvements were real. They weren’t hopes or dreams, they were real. Since losing 24-17 in Week 1 to Utah, which happens to be one of the best teams in the country, the Wolverines have rightfully earned their recent attention.
“You know, we just work hard as a team in practice and we expect to win every single game,” said senior kicker Kenny Allen, who went 3-for-3 with a long of 38. “We come out, we work hard in the game. We’re playing well. Sometimes things don’t go the way that you planned.”
Teams without “steel in their spine,” a term used by Habaugh after the game, don’t blow-out BYU, 31-0. They don’t go on the road in the Big Ten, with a new coach, and slam Maryland, 28-0. They certainly don’t pitch 38-0 shutouts against Northwestern, either.
A four-point loss doesn’t negatively define Michigan’s season; it’s just more motivation to continue a positive turnaround that has already been identified and documented. Allowing points in just six of the previous 24 quarters did that for the Wolverines. Bouncing back from losing to the Utes did that.
“I think that we can take out the fact that offense, defense and special teams–we played hard-nosed football,” Allen said. “Mistakes were made today, but no team’s perfect. Mistakes are going to be made. I think we stuck together until the very end.”
I think we’ll respond great. That’s the kind of team we are.”
Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81