Last October, Michigan went into Penn State?s Beaver Stadium with a 5-1 record and full confidence in itself. It believed that its loss to Michigan State two weeks earlier was a fluke and its nation-leading defense could carry an inconsistent offense.
Four hours later, all of those illusions had flown out the window. The Wolverines were thoroughly humiliated in a 42-13 defeat ? the worst under coach Jim Harbaugh ? setting the table for their 3-4 finish to an underwhelming season. Most shockingly, the defense that Michigan thought it could rely on had been ripped to shreds by Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley, allowing 506 yards.
More than a year later, the Wolverines have not forgotten about that night in State College. Defensive coordinator Don Brown won?t let them. He claims to wake up every morning thinking about the loss.
As much as the players might want to forget, they too know that they can?t. Instead, they have used it all season as a reminder of how quickly things can go wrong.
?I think about it a lot,? said junior safety Josh Metellus. ?Because I don?t like losing and I really don?t like losing like that where we looked like we had no chance.?
Now that this year?s showdown with the Nittany Lions is three days away, last year?s disaster is more present in Michigan?s minds than ever before. The roles are reversed from last year, with the host Wolverines likely controlling their own College Football Playoff destiny while a rocky season for Penn State has taken them out of the top 10.
For Michigan, all that means is that it needs to return the favor on Saturday.
?It?s just one of those games where we owe them,? Metellus said. ?Last year was one of those games where you tried to forget but you can?t because it?s just stuck in the back of your head. Everybody?s different in the building, wanting to make sure we make a statement because last year we didn?t.?
Last year?s Penn State game is not the only defeat that the Wolverines are using to fuel themselves ahead of the final stretch.
Senior left tackle Jon Runyan was not a crucial member of last year?s offensive line so it doesn?t carry as much weight for him as it does for more seasoned players. Instead, his demons stem from this year?s season-opening loss to Notre Dame.
Over the bye week, Runyan re-watched the game for the first time since film study the following week. Like the Penn State game does for Metellus, watching the Notre Dame game makes Runyan sick. At first, he wasn?t sure if he could stomach reliving it but he ultimately decided he needed to keep it fresh in his mind to prevent a repeat performance.
?I just watch that to remind me of where I came from, my first start at left tackle, and see how far I?ve progressed and the offense has progressed,? Runyan said. ?That?s something that, I don?t want to have that feeling again. So carrying forward, I remember that feeling when I watch that game and I don?t want to have that feeling in the next four games.?
The attitude around Schembechler Hall is very different from what it was going into both the Notre Dame and Penn State losses. Runyan called last Saturday?s postgame celebration against Michigan State the most energetic locker room he has ever experienced.
To keep those positive vibes flowing, Michigan has to remember the alternative.