Ann Arbor – Maybe Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh believes in momentum, maybe he doesn’t. When asked, he explained he doesn’t know if there’s a formula and then somehow drew physicist Albert Einstein into the conversation.
At his weekly news conference Monday, Harbaugh wasn’t interested in connecting dots for anyone wondering if the Wolverines had carryover – in other words, momentum -- from a strong second half in a loss at unbeaten Penn State, into their manhandling of Notre Dame, 45-14, on Saturday night. It was Harbaugh’s second win against a top-10 team in 12 attempts.
“I don’t know the formula for that one – momentum,” Harbaugh said. “Albert Einstein – I think he had a formula. I don’t have a formula.”
No. 14 Michigan is 6-2, 3-2 Big Ten, and plays at Maryland (3-5, 1-4) this Saturday.
Relatively speaking, maybe the explanation for Michigan’s improved play actually is quite simple and can’t be explained by scientific theories or logic.
Maybe it’s just this, he suggested – trust.
As Harbaugh described the improvement of right tackle Jalen Mayfield, a new starter this season, his response suddenly expanded to a team-wide description.
“Probably the thing that stood out to me the most from the ballgame Saturday night was how much unconditional belief our players had in each other and themselves,” Harbaugh said. “It was as high as I’ve ever seen it. Practically 100 percent. They knew they would get their own job done, they knew the player next to them would get their job done. It’s what they knew.”
The Wolverines have four games remaining – including rivalry games against Michigan State and unbeaten No. 3 Ohio State.
The Wolverines said they felt like they put things together offensively in the second half at Penn State and nearly tied the game in the fourth quarter but dropped the ball on a fourth-down pass in the end zone. Then they steamrolled Notre Dame.
Is there a confidence this team now has that can carry the Wolverines the rest of the season?
“That unconditional belief in each other is huge, in my opinion,” Harbaugh said.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh respects the fight and resilience his team has had this season. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Perhaps just as substantial as the belief is that Michigan hasn’t lost a turnover since the second half of the Penn State game. Fumbles had plagued the offense earlier in the season and disrupted attempts at finding a rhythm. There were three quarterback fumbles in the wet and windy conditions against Notre Dame, but two were recovered and the other rolled of bounds.
But the big picture, Harbaugh said, is the trust aspect and believing what he said after Michigan’s 10-3 victory over Iowa – that the Wolverines were, in his opinion, hitting their stride. No one watching the games might have believed that, but he made sure his players did.
That’s why they decided they wouldn’t quit after a second loss.
“I don’t think it was really a decision. I don’t think we really had an option,” Mayfield said. “You’re playing at Michigan, you’re expected to win. Just give up on a season, especially with these games we have coming down the stretch, would be really disappointing.
“I don’t think we really had an option. Everybody knew what we had to do to clean up the minor details. We had no option but to respond, especially against Notre Dame, one of our rivals. There was no bigger opportunity to do that.”
Safety Brad Hawkins said the Wolverines intend to keep this momentum going.
“It doesn’t stop here,” Hawkins said. “We’ve got another game this week. It’s another statement game. Every game we play from now on is a statement game. And we’ve got to go out there and show the world who we are.
“Every game we’ve got to win. It’s as simple as that. Every time we step on the field we’ve got to play with a chip on our shoulder.”
Hawkins said Harbaugh told the team the Notre Dame game could be a “legacy game” for them. That anything they did in a win against the Irish would be remembered “100 years from now.” Hawkins said the players embraced that notion, and he said the players have now decided to make each game a “statement game.”
“That’s something that we all came up with,” he said. “That’s just what we’ve got to do from now on. We’ve got two losses, we can’t get no more losses. We’ve got to go out there and play our best football every single week.”
Hawkins said the team came out flat in the first half at Penn State but rallied in the second and, as Mayfield said, the Wolverines realized they have to keep this rolling.
“Knowing we came off a big loss and we knew we had a big game coming up, coach said we're still in the ring,” Hawkins said. “We had to continue to keep going. We couldn’t stop because we knew we had a big game coming up. There wasn’t no time to dwell on what happened at Penn State. There was no time to put your head low. We had to keep going, we had to get back.”
The trust among the players, he said, deepened during the win over Notre Dame.
“That’s something we’ve got to continue to do,” Hawkins said. “We’ve got to continue to trust each other and play hard and good things will come.”