With less than a month left in the regular season, the Michigan football team is in a familiar spot.
The 14th-ranked Wolverines (7-2 overall, 4-2 Big Ten) have two losses with three games left to play, two of which are against rivals. When Harbaugh’s group found itself in that very predicament two years ago, the season ended in shame. Michigan eventually limped across the finish line with double-digit losses against Wisconsin and Ohio State before choking away a 19-3 lead in the Outback Bowl. U-M’s five losses that season remain the most in the Harbaugh era.
The fact that much of this veteran offense was on the roster, and even on the field quite a bit, during the 2017 collapse could help the Wolverines avoid a similar fate this season. The combination of 2017’s sour taste and the experience of this year’s blowout loss in Madison and heartbreaker in Happy Valley makes this group, as odd as it may sound, well-prepared for this season’s homestretch.
That, coupled with just how close this program was from the College Football Playoff last season and in 2016, is valuable. The big stage isn’t a stranger.
If you ask any of the Wolverines, they’ll be quick to tell you the biggest game is always the next one. But with a chance to potentially put the nail in Mark Dantonio’s coffin against Michigan State, dismantle an Indiana team that just lost its quarterback to a season-ending injury and play spoiler in Ohio State’s run at an undefeated season, each one is meaningful.
For Michigan, much of the next three weeks will hinge on how well its talent is weaponized, particularly on offense. That may not be too daunting of a task against the Spartans and Hoosiers, but when the Buckeyes come to town, quarterback Shea Patterson needs enough time in the pocket to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers.
If there were ever a time for the highly-touted receiving trio of Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black to take over a stretch of the schedule, it’s now. At the very least, it’s plausible to expect each to see an uptick in targets.
Michigan State is strong up front, while Ohio State boasts a very talented defensive backfield. Both have the potential to make things tough against the Wolverines’ up-and-down passing attack, but putting the ball in the hands of the talented wideouts and sophomore slot receiver Ronnie Bell will prove crucial. As for its own defense, U-M’s playmakers along the defensive line and within the secondary have to find ways to swing the pendulum in the Wolverines’ favor when it matters most.
Should Michigan win its next two games, it cannot be “out-played” or “out-coached,” as Harbaugh put it after losing to Wisconsin, against the Buckeyes. Suffering a thorough beatdown on its home turf after Thanksgiving, a scenario which would likely allow Ohio State to waltz into the College Football Playoff, would be the lowest way to end the regular season.
By the same token, wilting in the shadow of the Buckeyes very well might be an accurate depiction of the gap between the two programs at the moment. But against Notre Dame, U-M showcased just how dominant it can be against a top-10 team if it sheds its mistakes and executes at the highest level. To see the same results at the end of the regular season, it’ll take the same brand of football.
If blowing out the Irish truly was an inflection point that began a new narrative, Harbaugh’s program now has the chance to prove it. Caving in the spotlight isn’t what this program wants to be known for, and the homestretch provides an opportunity to dictate whether or not 2019 is remembered for exactly that.