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Niyo: Harbaugh’s Michigan staff earns his faith

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Jehu Chesson’s decisive touchdown catch Saturday was a result of some perceptive improvisation.

Ann Arbor — Jim Harbaugh was quoting Lou Holtz reciting Bible passages at his weekly press conference Monday.

But while some of it might have been lost in translation — go figure, right? — this wasn’t so much about scripture, or even scripted plays. This was about the kind of trust the Wolverines have developed in his first season as the Wolverines’ head coach. And the faith they have that it’ll lead them somewhere few would’ve promised before the season began.

Harbaugh was talking about the call that came from above Saturday in Bloomington, with Michigan in double-overtime against Indiana, and the record-setting touchdown pass that one of his assistants, Jedd Fisch, dialed up from out of nowhere.

It was a 25-yard toss from Jake Rudock to Amara Darboh that proved to be the winner, a stop-and-go route that wasn’t on the call sheet — “It’s not even on the wrist band,” Rudock said — and wasn’t practiced at all during the week. They’d repped it in training camp, and earlier in the season, Harbaugh said. But Saturday against the Hoosiers, Darboh had simply run the curl route a few times for shorter gains.

“We hit three curls earlier in the game,” Harbaugh explained Monday. “But Jedd Fisch from the box wanted it, suggested it … and I was hesitant to call it.

“But I’m like Abraham, I’m gonna die leaning on my staff — I think that was the way Abraham said it,” Harbaugh said, recycling a line he used a time or two while coaching the 49ers — and one he got from Holtz, the former Notre Dame coach.

I think it might’ve been Jacob, not Abraham — in Hebrews 11:21 — though I’m no Biblical scholar. And for what it’s worth, Holtz used to cite Joseph and Peter and Moses when he’d use that line. But that’s not the point.

“I’m gonna die leaning on my staff, too,” Harbaugh said Monday. “I trusted Jedd, what he was seeing, and the rest is history.”

Holding court

And that’s really the point here, presently, as Michigan braces for this late-November gauntlet, with its Big Ten championship hopes hanging in the balance and a depleted roster hanging on for dear life, or so it would seem.

Harbaugh didn’t want to hear any of that Monday, scoffing at the notion he’d actually raised himself Saturday while referencing his injury-battered defensive line. (“It looked like we were playing like we were undermanned, we were tired,” he said after the game.) He talked Monday about his players showing up “with a bounce in their step” as they began prepping for Penn State.

Jim Harbaugh puts his trust in assistants like defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin.

And later he referenced his own childhood memories of playing pickup basketball just down the road at Pattengill Elementary, where winners kept the court and the goal was not to give it up from breakfast until lunch.

With two regular-season games remaining, and the Big Ten East division title still within reach, lunch for his 8-2 team now is “the opportunity to play in the championship game, the playoffs,” Harbaugh said. “If you win, you get to keep playing. If not, you have to watch.”

Watching Michigan play Saturday, as it gave up 300-plus rushing yards to Indiana and failed to force a single turnover, it was hard to envision the Wolverines playing their way to Indianapolis. To get there, they’ll have to win at Penn State and then knock off Ohio State a week later in Ann Arbor. They’ll also need the Buckeyes to get past Michigan State this week in Columbus.

Clock-watching

But watching this team play all season, it’s hard not to see the differences from years past, from the player development to the developing playbook.

There’s a more physical brand of football, certainly. And a mental toughness that has allowed Michigan to rebound from that crushing Michigan State loss a month ago with late-game poise in road wins at Minnesota and Indiana.

Wolverines not hurting, 'have a bounce in their step'

There are playmakers who have emerged on both sides of the ball, from Jake Butt and Jehu Chesson to Jourdan Lewis and Jabrill Peppers. And there’s a quarterback in Rudock — the graduate transfer from Iowa whose teammates have taken to calling “Dad” for his no-nonsense approach — who has given Harbaugh a “known friend and trusted agent” to lean on in crunch time.

“He’s just all business, all the time,” said center Graham Glasgow, another fifth-year senior. “And that’s what I like about him.”

But there are some obvious limitations, too. And what we’re about to find out is whether this staff that Harbaugh has assembled — one that’s a marked improvement, by just about any measure, over the group that preceded it — can make the difference down the stretch.

It’ll be up to D.J. Durkin & Co. to find creative ways to “prop up” — Harbaugh’s words — a defensive front that’s probably taken one too many injury hits now with the loss of Ryan Glasgow. (Bring on the blitz?) It’ll be up to Fisch and co-coordinator Tim Drevno to coax more out of a running game that seems to have hit a wall, (A few more wrinkles with Peppers?) It’ll be up to John Baxter — whose special-teams units were a revelation in the season’s first half — to plug the newly-sprung holes in the coverage units. (Um, make a tackle?)

And it’ll be up to Harbaugh to keep hammering home his motivational message — “It’s suck-it-up time,” he says — even as he tries to squeeze more out of every minute of every day and every game.

That field goal the Wolverines got just before halftime Saturday at Indiana probably didn’t seem like much in a game that ended with nearly 90 points scored. But the clock management that produced it — much like that at the end of regulation — is the kind of thing Michigan fans rarely, if ever, saw from Brady Hoke.

And it’s the kind of thing this team is going to need to lean on if it hopes to keep those championship hopes alive.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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