Where can one find “enthusiasm unknown to humanity?” It’s apparently everywhere but Michigan in the Big Ten in 2020.
It’s in Northwestern, where Pat Fitzgerald led the “Fighting Rece Davises” to a 17-7 victory over Wisconsin. It’s in Indiana, where Tom Allen’s postgame speech after a 49-42 loss to Ohio State received viral treatment. He is implicated in Ohio State, where a 49-42 victory it feels like a loss because of expectations of a national championship in Columbus.
It was at Rutgers, too, under first-year coach Greg Schiano – before the Wolverines rallied from a 17-point deficit and battled for triple extra time for an exhausting 48-42 victory against the Scarlet Knights.
This round goes back to Ann Arbor and sixth-year coach Jim Harbaugh and the eternal question of what to do after a 2-3 start to the season. Harbaugh made no promises when he took the job in 2015, other than the Wolverines attack him every day with an “enthusiasm unknown to humanity.”
He was nowhere to be found in the first half against Rutgers. Michigan had 15 rushing attempts for 17 yards; which continued a 10-yard stretch in which the Wolverines had 52 attempted runs for 77 yards.
Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral has become the third quarterback to score a 300-yard touchdown pass against the Wolverines this season – another indictment against defensive coordinator Don Brown. Twitter wanted to fire Harbaugh at the break. Michigan was desperate for a spark to generate enthusiasm someone kind.
Quarterback Cade McNamara provided that spark after replacing Joe Milton. It seems 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 return in the second half. McNamara finished 27 of 36 passing for 260 yards, five total touchdowns and no interceptions.
It wasn’t just McNamara. Giles Jackson’s early 95-yard return opened the second half and turned a 10-point deficit into a one-point game. The sleepy run game took place in the second half behind Hassan Haskins, who finished with 23 goals for 112 yards and a mark.
The defense couldn’t shut down, and the Scarlet Knights forced extra time on the touchdown pass and a 2-point conversion from Vedral with 27 seconds remaining.
Which led to some classic “Big Ten After Dark”. The two kickers missed field goals in the first overtime. Both teams scored touchdowns in the second. Haskins scored in the third overtime, and Daxton Hill intercepted Vedral in the final game of the game. The Michigan players stormed the field later.
It’s a temperamental victory with the fact that it’s Rutgers. Questions of what to do will continue with Harbaugh heading into a match against Penn State (0-5), the only traditional Big Ten powerhouse that has beaten the Wolverines this season.
If there’s one excuse for some programs, then it’s that enthusiasm can be hard to generate in a losing season during the COVID-19 pandemic. Penn State and LSU may be in a relationship, but these programs have better excuses. The Nittany Lions have played in 6 New Year’s Day three bowls three of the last four years and lost Micah Parsons and I travel Brown before the season. The Tigers won the national championship last year after losing 14 games against the NFL Draft along with assistant coaches Joe Brady and Dave Aranda.
They could take a mulligan in 2021 with less malice from their fan bases.
Do Wolverines have the same case? Receiver Nico Collins and cornerback Ambry Thomas have chosen not to play this season. Start dealing Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes are out. So 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 named on Days 2 and 3 of the 2021 NFL Draft.
It could be bad. He may be the cousins of Southern Michigan in Tennessee. The Vols lost their fifth straight game Saturday after a flood season where enthusiasm dumped unrealistic expectations.
Which brings us back to Harbaugh’s question: What are the expectations for 2020 and beyond? Can it be answered for the next three weeks, against Penn State, Maryland (maybe) and Ohio State? It’s not the easiest decision for Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel.
Fire Harbaugh, and there’s the risk factor of knowing that seven years of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke produced a 46-42 record – a stretch in which the Wolverines had three losing seasons and were nowhere near the national scene. .
Keeping Harbaugh and attached to the obsolete “Man Michigan” mantra with no tangible results could push the program further back into the pecking order in the Big Ten. We’re not just talking about Ohio State. Indiana and Northwestern will be more competitive in 2020.
Harbaugh is 49-21 in Michigan. He sent up 10 winning seasons and recruiting classes out of the top 10, but victories against the top-10 teams were not followed. He hit .500 in eight games against Michigan State and Notre Dame, but that 0-5 record against Ohio State remains the tag line. After all, Urban Meyer finished his career with the Buckeyes with a 7-0 record against the Wolverines.
If Harbaugh achieves the reverse of this – a 0-7 record that crosses his contract expiration date in 2021 – then this would be the most logical point for Michigan and Harbaugh to separate. If the Wolverines follow this path, however, toxicity levels will reach new highs amid a program where expectations have not been met.
Maybe Harbaugh found him once and for all in triple overtime in Rutgers.
You have a better answer in three weeks in Columbus.