'We're going to keep fighting': 5-2 Michigan refuses to throw in towel on season
Ann Arbor — Michigan is effectively out of the running for the Big Ten championship with five regular-season games remaining, but the Wolverines insist they still have the desire and fight to push on. That's especially true with Notre Dame coming to Michigan Stadium for a prime-time kickoff on Saturday and rivalry games against Michigan State and Ohio State remaining.
The 19th-ranked Wolverines (5-2, 3-2 Big Ten) are coming off a 28-21 loss at unbeaten Penn State last Saturday in an important Big Ten East Division in which Ohio State and Penn State are currently dominating. Michigan had been considered a favorite to win the East Division entering this season.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said how they define a successful season at this point is not all that much different than what it was at the start of the year.
“Win our next game, that’s our goal,” Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly news conference. “Put together a really good plan for this week, practice it and go out and execute. I feel like our team is as optimistic as ever it’s hitting its stride.
“Win our next game, that’s where our focus is.”
It was a message echoed by his players.
“What’s left to play, we’ve got our whole season left,” defensive tackle and co-captain Carlo Kemp said Monday. “We’re at the midway point. We’ve got five games coming up and they’re good teams. We have three of the most important rivalries in college football coming up — you’ve got Notre Dame, you’ve got Michigan State and then you’ve got the game at the end of the year. Those are the games that you play for.
“We’re not going to sit here and be like, ‘All right, we’re done’ and go out there and just coast the rest of the season. Our whole mentality during that Penn State game is, ‘All right, what’s the response?’ One play at a time, one series at a time, speaking defensively, get the ball back to our offense, let them get a chance to score. It didn’t matter if they scored, if they punted, if we kicked a field goal, let’s go, get the ball to the offense, get a stop, next play.
"And that’s where our mind’s at right now. We’re not worried about, ‘OK, what’s our national championship hopes? What are our Big Ten hopes?’ Those are all outcomes. They will happen if they happen. But we’ve got to focus on what’s coming up and what’s guaranteed is that Notre Dame game, and that game is coming Saturday and we have an opportunity to play in front of our home fans and play under the lights.”
Defensive end Kwity Paye said immediately after the loss at Penn State that this team would not hang its heads and fold. He reiterated that on Monday, saying that despite the loss, the players were encouraged by their performance after the Nittany Lions took a 21-0 lead.
“We’re still going to ball, you know, because you never know what’s going to happen later in the season,” Paye said. “A team may get those two losses and we’re right back into the fight. We’re just going to keep fighting and keep playing.”
How seriously is Paye taking this game?
He said the team has watched some Notre Dame clips recently, and he plans to sneak a few peeks on his iPad during class when he gets the chance.
This is a time, though, when the captains need to step in and step up. This is when younger players who may have gotten caught up in the preseason hype need to be grounded by the veterans.
“At times, especially with the younger guys, people tend to look farther ahead than they can control, worrying about Big Ten championship, national championships, when really the only thing you can control is the next game,” Ben Bredeson, a co-captain, said. “Just help them see that and see that there’s still a lot of good things we can attain this season. It all starts this Saturday.”
This will be the last Michigan-Notre Dame game for the foreseeable future, although Harbaugh said there are ongoing conversations about getting it back on the schedule, and he’d be in favor of resuming the rivalry.
Michigan lost at Notre Dame in the season opener last season, 24-17. That was the first game of this two-game series after a three-year break. The Irish won 31-0 in 2014, and Michigan beat Notre Dame in an “under the lights” game at Michigan Stadium in 2013, 41-30. This will be the third time the teams meet in a night game at Michigan.
“I think this game is going to be huge,” Paye said. “In this past lost (at Penn State), even though we lost, I feel like the offense found their mojo and I feel like the defense started picking it up in the second half. I feel like this will be huge for us.”
The Irish were off last Saturday. They are 5-1 with their only blemish a loss at Georgia.
“It’s historic,” Kemp said of playing Notre Dame. “Being able to be a part of this game, two teams that have tremendous tradition, you get to be a part of that on Saturday.
“One of the things I think that’s really cool is this game isn’t scheduled for a little bit, so there’s a chance to make a name for yourself, a name for this team, a name for the offense, a name for the defense historically. They can talk about what happened in this Michigan-Notre Dame game in 2019.”
Notre Dame at Michigan
Kickoff: 7:30 Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 8 Notre Dame 5-1; No. 19 Michigan 5-2, 3-2
Line: Michigan by 1