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Bacon: A tale of two Michigan football teams

university of michigan football coach jim harbaugh
Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Jim Harbaugh in a file photo from Nov. 21, 2015.

Both the Michigan State and Michigan football teams entered last weekend with something to prove – and one of them proved it.

The Michigan State Spartans had suffered an embarrassing loss the week before against Arizona State. Down 10-7 late in the game, the Spartans’ kicker seemed to tie the game with a last-minute field goal. But they were called for having too many men on the field – just about the dumbest penalty you can take. On the do-over, the kick went wide, and the Spartans lost.

The loss also confirmed fans’ fears that Michigan State’s offense was just as bad as last year’s, which was one of the nation’s worst. Head coach Mark Dantonio had entered the weekend tied with Duffy Daugherty with 109 wins at Michigan State, the most in school history, but it was not clear where he might get the 110th.

The Spartans traveled to Northwestern, and surprised everyone by scoring 31 points, good for a convincing win and a new record for Dantonio. That’s no small feat when the previous record holders won national titles. Now the Spartans are favored against Indiana this weekend.

While the Spartans’ prospects suddenly looked brighter, the Wolverines’ took a turn for the worse – and dramatically so. Michigan started the season ranked 7th, with plenty of talented players and a strong coaching staff returning. But after two wobbly wins to start the season, including a double-overtime squeaker against Army, the Wolverines looked to make a statement against 13th-ranked Wisconsin.

They did, but not the one they were hoping to make. Instead of brandishing their status as a potential national contender, the Wolverines took themselves out of the national title race in just one game. They looked disorganized, and often disinterested. The game was basically over when Michigan fell behind 21-0 in the first half, before falling 35-14. And the score wasn’t the worst statistic Michigan compiled that weekend.

This naturally sent the national critics howling and Michigan fans into the fetal position, convinced their team would fail to win the Big Ten for a school-record 15th year in a row. It also prompted a sizeable chunk of the Michigan fan base to wonder if coach Jim Harbaugh, in his fifth year leading the team, would be able to return his alma mater to the promised land, as everyone had expected him to do when he came back five years ago.

Immediately after the dispiriting loss, Harbaugh said they had been, “Out-prepared, out-worked, and out-coached.” That all looked about right.

So, what next?

Can Harbaugh pull his team together in time to save the season? This weekend’s game against lowly Rutgers shouldn’t be much of a test, but Michigan then faces a ranked Iowa team, followed by four more ranked teams this season – including Michigan State.

Harbaugh’s back is against the wall, but if you study his history, you’ll see that’s when he typically does his best work: when the chips are down, the critics are loud, and he has to rely on fundamentals to get out of the jam.

Whether he can do that now, and bring his team with him, will be determined in the next two weeks.

The Spartans will be watching, and waiting.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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