Ann Arbor — Whether this is the beginning of the end, or the start of something special, Michigan knows what’s at stake as the 12th-ranked Wolverines kick off a midseason gauntlet Saturday night against No. 15 Wisconsin at Michigan Stadium.
What’s past is prologue, and what’s to come, well, “This is the part that defines your whole season,” linebacker Devin Bush Jr. said, “and what your team wants to do.”
And to get what they want — a clear shot at their first Big Ten championship since Jim Harbaugh was a first-year head coach and Shea Patterson was a first grader — they’d do well to borrow a page from their in-state rival’s playbook.
The blueprint Mark Dantonio and his Spartans seem to have misplaced at the moment, but one Michigan fans know all too well. The one about closing the deal, which requires winning games like this, under the lights and on national television.
“We, in the past, have not finished the big games like we wanted to,” senior captain Tyree Kinnel said Saturday after another dismantling of a lesser Big Ten opponent — a 42-21 win over Maryland — set the stage once more.
Now comes a monthlong stretch that features home games against Wisconsin and Penn State, with a trip to East Lansing to face Michigan State stuck in the middle, right where Michigan no longer wants to be.
Jim Harbaugh is 2-8 against top-15 opponents since returning to Michigan, and on his watch the Wolverines are 0-5 in games when ESPN’s College GameDay crew is on site, as it will be again Saturday in Ann Arbor. Heck, Michigan’s only wins at night in Harbaugh’s 3 ½-year tenure have come against Minnesota (twice) and Rutgers.
By contrast, Dantonio is 9-5 against top-10 teams since 2011, and the Spartans are 7-3 with GameDay in town the last decade. Even Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst boasts a .500 mark (5-5) against top-15 teams since taking the helm at Wisconsin in 2015, the same year Harbaugh took over at Michigan.
And while they’ve traded home wins the last two years — last year’s 24-10 in Madison was another GameDay clash — Wisconsin also is 15-1 in true road games under Chryst, who is 38-8 overall.
“That’s a team that does not beat themselves,” said Harbaugh, whose 33-12 record at Michigan is the same as James Franklin’s at Penn State over that same period. “Does not give up big plays, people aren’t out of position, they don’t turn the ball over. They make themselves very tough to beat. So that’s a sign of a well-coached team and a great program.”
It’s also a subtle reminder of where Michigan has fallen short in critical games the last few years. And where they did again in the season opener at Notre Dame, caving to the pressure – “We just weren’t ready for that,” offensive line coach Ed Warinner acknowledged this week – in a loss that Kinnel now calls a “learning experience.”
What we’ve learned since is that Michigan certainly has the talent – and more important, the quarterback – to contend with the Big Ten’s best.
Michigan boasts the nation’s top-rated defense, though it’ll be tested Saturday by the nation’s top rusher in Jonathan Taylor (169.8 yards per game) and a quarterback in Alex Hornibrook who came up with some clutch throws late in the win in Madison a year ago.
Patterson, meanwhile, could be the difference-maker this time around. He’s completing 68.8 percent of his passes and already has thrown more touchdowns (10) than a trio of quarterbacks managed all of last season for Michigan, which averaged just 274 yards a game in losses to Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State in 2017.
“Shea’s playing really well,” Harbaugh said. “Everybody can see that.”
Likewise, it’s easy to see the opportunity here for Michigan. Wisconsin arrives in Ann Arbor a banged-up bunch of Badgers, with two top cornerbacks questionable for Saturday due to injuries and a starting safety sidelined for the first half after a targeting penalty last week against Nebraska. A game in which Wisconsin’s defense allowed 407 passing yards to the winless Cornhuskers, no less.
After that, it’s a Michigan State team that appears to be in some disarray. The Spartans also are struggling with a rash of injuries — “When you’re having your position meetings in the training room, it’s not a good sign,” offensive line coach Mark Staten joked Wednesday — and questions about play-calling and effort immediately followed last week’s Homecoming loss to Northwestern.
Senior receiver Felton Davis III insisted Tuesday there’s “no need to hit the panic button.” But there’s enough frustration over the way they’ve played in a pair of fourth-quarter losses that the Spartans held another players-only meeting to air things out before heading to Happy Valley.
Michigan State has won four of its last five against Penn State, including last year’s 27-24 weather-delayed upset in East Lansing. That’s one of those “program wins” that Dantonio keeps talking about, and it has the Spartans drawing optimistic parallels even now amid all the angst. Coming in unranked, coming off a loss to Northwestern, “it’s the same, exact scenario as last year.”
We’ll see about that. But there’ll be a familiar feel in the air this weekend, all right, with temperatures dropping and stakes rising. And how the scenarios play out for both Michigan and Michigan State on Saturday should tell us something about where each will be in the Big Ten title chase when all is said and done.