ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t hold back when asked about the questionable officiating during Saturday’s game between his No. 12-ranked Wolverines and the visiting No. 7-ranked Michigan State Spartans.
But before he fielded questions pertaining to the wildly obvious missed calls, poor communication and handfuls of flow-stopping reviews, he took the time to compliment his team for a job well done. Other than losing 27-23 to Michigan State, Michigan absolutely proved that it’s on the right track–and miles, miles away from what it was a year ago.
One botched punt by Blake O’Neill–who was unjustly torn apart by Wolverines fans–won’t arrest the development of the Wolverines (5-2, 2-1 B1G), nor will it derail progress. They’re just getting started.
“They played their guts out. They played winning football,” said Harbaugh. “Overcame so much–and we messed up, messed up the play at the end. That resolve puts steel in the spine, and we’ll move forward.”
Knowing that his team played well enough to win served as some sort of buffer for Harbaugh. But he was clearly disappointed that his team let a 23-14 lead escape late in the fourth quarter. That’s when Spartans quarterback Connor Cook connected with fullback Trevon Pendleton for a 74-yard gain. Initially ruled a touchdown, the call was reversed–running back L.J. Scott did the rest, pulling the Spartans ever closer with 8:56 to play.
Jalen Watts-Jackson put the finishing touches on the win by scooping up the loose punt, crossing the goal line in dramatic fashion before suffering a likely season-ending dislocated hip once he hit the ground.
But the Wolverines did much more than give up a couple they wish they hadn’t. Their defense had 10 pass breakups. Willie Henry, a redshirt junior defensive lineman, had two sacks and three tackles for a loss. Junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis stood toe-to-toe with Aaron Burbridge, who is one of the best receivers in the nation. That was a 50-50 battle all night.
But all of that was still overshadowed by faulty officiating.
“Yeah. There’s so much good–our guys who came, they played big in a big game,” Harbaugh said. “Overcame so much. Calls that were made, calls that weren’t made–just kept fighting and overcame so much in the ball game. And ultimately played winning football. What do you say about the last plays? That was unfortunate. Didn’t get the result.”
Harbaugh acknowledged that Michigan had control for most of the game. He was asked how he pushes past such a loss, responding with “That resolve is steel in their spine–we’ve got to move forward, that’s how.”
And then there was the topic of Joe Bolden, a senior linebacker who was ejected in the first quarter for a crime he didn’t commit. It wasn’t even close. Everyone saw it.
Everyone but the officials. And in the end, and worst of all, Bolden was robbed of his final opportunity to play against a rival.
“I tried to explain to him that Bolden was pushed in the back,” Harbaugh said. “That really should have been a push-in-the-back penalty. His explanation was that the review people saw it the same way. Hard to fathom. And the quarterback wasn’t even down on the ground–he was straight up and tried to drop like a sack of potatoes. That was just one, one of many (missed/bad calls).”
Chris Balas of The Wolverines followed with a question about the defense’s resolve. After all, it had lost a captain and top-tier producer–yet it still maintained throughout most of the afternoon. There was plenty of resolve. Together, the defensive line and linebackers held the Spartans to a paltry 58 rushing yards. They also allowed just three of 12 third-down conversions.
“Multiple times. Multiple times,” Harbaugh said of witnessing his defense’s toughness. “Even the time when we stopped them on fourth down and they called a personal foul penalty, which–I tried to tell our guys, I mean, their back is not stopping–he is… on two, three occasions he got push from the offensive line, picked up five, seven more yards.”
Harbaugh was referencing a call on Henry, who said during postgame that he was just finishing a play and never has intent on harming an opposing player. Harbaugh saw things the same way.
“We had to stop the back, and you know–I didn’t agree with that one,” said Harbaugh. “I thought that for sure I saw a facemask on Jake Rudock–when the ball got deflected back to him. It was.. yeah. They just kept fighting. They just kept fighting. Fighting through things which you’re so proud of as a coach.
Our guys fought their hearts out. We’ll come back, and we’ll build and we’ll steel ourselves against it. A lot of fight in our guys–so I’m really proud of that. We played winning football and overcame a lot.”
However, don’t take Harbaugh’s comments as anything but what they were: Responses. He acknowledged the Spartans’ hard work and wasn’t looking for excuses. The better team won Saturday.
“We did so many good things, you know,” Harbaugh said. “Both teams. Both teams played extremely hard in the game. It was close, hard-fought like you’d expect. But I was really proud of the way our team played.”
But the game was plagued by low-grade officiating throughout four quarters.
“Yeah. I mean you could say that,” Harbaugh said.
Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81