Harbaugh can’t win big games.
It’s the refrain that permeates Michigan football Twitter and has been ingrained into the minds of every Wolverines’ fan over the past two years.
Its validity is, of course, the subject of much debate. Two years ago, Michigan hosted then-no. 8 Wisconsin in a jarringly similar matchup to Saturday’s and beat the Badgers 14-7. The previous week, they handed Rose Bowl-bound Penn State a 49-10 loss in State College.
But the criticisms remain, though they mostly stem from a 1-5 record against Ohio State and Michigan State. And whether or not you believe in the storyline, the Wolverines need to beat Wisconsin on Saturday to start proving it wrong.
Within the team, a newfound togetherness has fueled Michigan’s confidence in its ability to do just that.
“I just think in their actions, in the way they’ve practiced — the coaches are even talking about it — you can feel the team coming together,” said cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich.
Among the Wolverines’ problems a year ago was its youth that made it difficult to produce natural leaders.
Outside of Chase Winovich and Maurice Hurst, Michigan’s star-studded defense was filled with sophomores in Rashan Gary, Khaleke Hudson, Devin Bush, and Lavert Hill. Sophomores Brandon Peters and Chris Evans carried the offense for long stretches.
Now, with their slew of 2016 recruits halfway through their junior year, it’s been easier for the Wolverines to develop cohesion in the locker room.
“Devin (Bush)’s leadership has helped,” Zordich said. “You can see it, you can start to feel it. Hopefully, it’s contagious.
“… I think it is (different than the past few years). I think the difference being is — especially last year — we were just so young and real fragmented and weren’t feeling quite together. Maybe that was the inexperience — that’s what my personal opinion is — but now, just seeing the way these guys are getting older, starting to feel comfortable with each other, with the system, playing together.”
That ability to play together extends beyond the borders of individual units. Even in its disappointing 2017, Michigan’s defense ranked third in yards allowed per game and ninth in scoring defense.
Its offense, though, ranked 86th in points per game — 13 points behind its 2018 average of 38.2. Even its special teams has jumped from 24th to 6th in ESPN’s efficiency metric.
Of course, like everything else related to the Wolverines’ offensive improvements, that can be attributed to Shea Patterson’s on-field performance. But his emerging leadership has accelerated the offense’s progress.
“I could see (togetherness increasing) offensively too,” Zordich said. “I think Shea has done a hell of a job bringing everybody together on that side of the ball.”
Added running backs coach Jay Harbaugh: “There’s kinda that gut trust that this guy can make some stuff happen. Our team never feels like we’re out of it or feels like we’re gonna lose but having a guy like that kinda amplifies it. You really feel like there’s nothing that can stop us.”
On Saturday, Michigan will hope that can lead it to the type of primetime win over a ranked opponent that has evaded it in recent seasons.
“(We’re feeling) the togetherness of the team, becoming a football team,” Zordich said. “It’s not just offense, defense, special teams. There’s three groups that are coming together to form one team.”