Jim Harbaugh kept Michigan unified after Wisconsin debacle, assistants say

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor – The first significant test for how Michigan truly has responded to its one-sided loss at Wisconsin comes Saturday against Iowa.

Not that the 52-0 rout of Rutgers wasn’t a solid rebound from the Big Ten opening loss against the Badgers -- during which Michigan was out-coached and outplayed, according to coach Jim Harbaugh -- but facing No. 14 Iowa with a veteran quarterback and a sound defense is a real challenge.

Jim Harbaugh

Still, some could argue it was all about how the No. 19 Wolverines (3-1, 1-1 Big Ten) would rally in the immediate days that followed such a demoralizing 35-14 loss, in which they had four turnovers and mustered only 40 yards rushing after spotting the Badgers an enormous lead. From all accounts, practices were spirited and hard-hitting last week and the players’ focus was constant.

Chris Partridge, Michigan’s safeties coach and special teams coordinator, said weeks after the 62-39 loss at Ohio State to end the regular season last fall, that he still had blood in his mouth from that game and that it served as motivation heading into this season. But to take a punch like the Badgers delivered this early, needed something different.

“I think in that situation you’ve got to pick yourself up off the floor immediately,” Partridge said Wednesday before practice. “You’ve got to look in the mirror and you’ve got to say, ‘What can we do better? What can we all do better?’ From myself to every player. You’ve got to attack from that moment on, because if you don’t attack, you’re gonna keep getting knocked back.”

He said everything started with Harbaugh, who didn’t sugarcoat the loss in the immediate aftermath and two days later during his weekly news conference. There were no silver linings to be found, no positives, and he went from there.

“Unbelievable how he handled the team and the coaches that week,” Partridge said. “It was just like a clinic, I felt. We got up and we attacked. We were ready, because we know who we are in here, and we knew we got knocked backward. There’s going to be some self-doubt. But if you just look in the mirror and say, ‘This isn’t how I’m defined,’ as an individual, as a team, and you get after it, the result will be what happened (against Rutgers).

“Then we’ve just got to continue to make sure that we remember and learn from that game moving forward, and we’ve got to prepare like we prepared last week, and we gotta feel like we felt Monday, even though you’re coming off a win. It’s got to be the same focus and determination and attention to detail and everything.”

Partridge said the situation was unique because of how the players and coaches banded together.

“Everybody responded. Every single person in this building responded,” he said. “That’s not common when you get beat like that in a game. That’s just what I saw. I saw every single person respond and put it on themselves and take it and then work to improve themselves a little bit. I think every single person in this building last week improved a little bit, and that is very uncommon coming off a loss.”

Jay Harbaugh, who coaches running backs and assists on special teams, said it’s possible for teams to succumb to outside pressures, but Jim Harbaugh didn’t waver and kept the team on course in the aftermath of the Wisconsin loss.

“Really, it’s about the task at hand,” Jay Harbaugh said. “The world we’re in, it wants everything to collapse and people to just quit. (Jim Harbaugh) was able to sit us down and say the focus is on Rutgers, and that’s really the only thing that matters, not anything that anybody else is saying. Really just reassuring everybody that let’s get back to meeting, get back to practice and focus on Rutgers and everything will be good.

“That’s consistent with his message after a 52-0 win as well as a Wisconsin game. It’s not any different. Having that kind of leadership that’s consistent like that that you can lean on and know, this is the direction we’re going, it’s really nice as a coach and as a player.”

No thanks 

Quarterback Joe Milton moved to the backup role while Dylan McCaffrey recovers from a concussion and had an opportunity to get some valuable playing time against Rutgers. Teammates have often described how hard a ball he throws.

Michigan cornerback Lavert Hill was asked this week if he ever plays catch with Milton just for fun.

“I really try to stay away from Joe Milton,” Hill said, smiling. “He throws the ball too hard for me. So I just try to stay away from him. If I’m going against him, I just try to bat the ball down.”

Receiver Nico Collins said he sometimes tells Milton it hurts to catch a ball he’s thrown and jokes with him to add a little touch.

“But that’s Joe,” Collins said. “He’s always going to throw a dart, we all know it, so you have to prepare for it.”