Where can you find “enthusiasm unknown to mankind?” It’s apparently everywhere except Michigan in the Big Ten by 2020.
It is in the Northwest that Pat Fitzgerald led the “Fighting Rece Davises” to a 17-7 victory over Wisconsin. It’s in Indiana that Tom Allen’s aftermath after a 49-42 loss to Ohio State received viral treatment. That’s implicit in Ohio State, where a 49-42 victory feels like a loss due to the expectations of the national championship in Columbus.
It was also with Rutgers under first-year coach Greg Schiano – before Wolverines recovered from a 17-point deficit and fought through triple overtime for an exhausting 48-42 victory over the Scarlet Knights.
It circles back to Ann Arbor and sixth-year coach Jim Harbaugh and the eternal what-to-do question after a 2-3 start to the season. Harbaugh made no promises when he took office in 2015, except Wolverines would attack every day with an “enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”
It was nowhere to be found in the first half against the Rutgers. Michigan had 15 rushing attempts at 17 yards; there continued a 10-quarter stretch where the Wolverines had 52 rushing attempts at 77 yards.
Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral became the third quarterback to hack a 300-yard passing game against the Wolverines this season – another charge against defense coordinator Don Brown. Twitter wanted to fire Harbaugh during the break. Michigan was desperate for a spark to create excitement for anyone friendly.
Backup quarterback Cade McNamara gave that spark after replacing Joe Milton. He looks like the best option for the rest of the season. He broke the scoring drought with a 46-yard touchdown pass to Cornelius Johnson in the first half and led the comeback in the second half. McNamara finished 27th out of 36 passing 260 yards, five total touchdowns and no interceptions.
It was not just McNamara. Giles Jackson’s 95-yard kickoff return opened the second half, turning a 10-point deficit into a one-score game. The sleeping run game picked up in the second half behind Hassan Haskins, who finished with 23 carries in 112 yards and a score.
The defense could not close, however, and the Scarlet Knights forced overtime on touchdown passes and a 2-point conversion from Vedral with 27 seconds left.
That led to some classic “Big Ten After Dark.” Both kickers missed field goals in the first overtime. Both teams scored touchdowns in the other. Haskins scored in the third overtime and Daxton Hill caught Vedral on the game’s final game. Michigan players stormed the pitch afterwards.
It’s a win tempered by the fact that it’s Rutgers. What to do questions continue with Harbaugh heading into a matchup against Penn State (0-5), the only traditional Big Ten power to have it worse than the Wolverines this season.
If there is one excuse for some programs, it is that enthusiasm can be difficult to generate in a losing season during the COVID-19 pandemic. Penn State and LSU can relate, but these programs have better excuses. Nittany Lions have played in New Year’s Day 6 bowls three of the last four years and lost Micah Parsons and Travel brown before the season. The Tigers won the national championship last year and then lost 14 players to the NFL draft along with assistant coaches Joe Brady and Dave Aranda.
They may draft a mulligan in 2021 with less bad will from their fan bases.
Do the virgins have the same case? Receiver Nico Collins and cornerback Ambry Thomas chose not to play this season. Start tackle Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes are out. Then there are the two best pass-rushers in Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye. Linebacker Cam McGrone left Saturday’s game with an injury. These are the players whose names will be called on days 2 and 3 of the 2021 NFL Draft.
It could be worse. It could be Michigan’s southern cousins in Tennessee. Vols lost their fifth straight game on Saturday after an offseason in which enthusiasm clouded realistic expectations.
Which brings us back to the Harbaugh question: What are the expectations for 2020 and beyond? Can it be answered over the next three weeks against Penn State, Maryland (maybe) and Ohio State? That’s not the easiest decision for Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel.
Fire Harbaugh, and there’s the risk factor of knowing that seven years with Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke produced a 46-42 record – a stretch where the Wolverines had three losing seasons and were nowhere near relevant on the national stage.
Retaining Harbaugh and sticking to the outdated “Michigan Man” mantra without tangible results could push the program further back to the picking order in the Big Ten. Nor are we just talking about Ohio State. Indiana and Northwestern have been more competitive by 2020.
Harbaugh is 49-21 in Michigan. He has delivered 10-win seasons and top-10 recruiting classes, but the victories against top-10 teams have not followed. He has hit .500 in eight games against Michigan State and Notre Dame, but the 0-5 record against Ohio State remains the roof line. After all, Urban Meyer ended his career with the Buckeyes with a 7-0 record against the Wolverines.
If Harbaugh reaches the opposite of that – a 0-7 record running through his contract expiration date in 2021 – then it would be the most logical point for Michigan and Harbaugh to part ways. However, if the wolf goes that route, the toxicity levels will reach new heights in the middle of a program where expectations are not met.
Maybe Harbaugh found it once and for all in triple overtime at Rutgers.
You’ll get a better answer in three weeks in Columbus.