Jim Harbaugh, Michigan must beat Ohio State, and everyone knows it


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Jim Harbaugh didn’t say much Monday during his weekly news conference. Oh, he spoke. For roughly 15 minutes if you’re wondering, not that anyone is counting.

There were words and sentences and perhaps a paragraph or two. There wasn’t much meaning behind them. Which is the point, I suppose and, frankly, Harbaugh’s job.

Why would he say much to begin Ohio State week? Why would he say anything at all that could become a distraction for him or his team?

All that’s at stake is the Big Ten East divisional title, a spot in the conference championship game, a chance at the College Football Playoff, the opportunity to knock off his biggest rival for the first time in a decade, and his legacy.

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Think about what beating Ohio State would do for Harbaugh. Think about how differently his time as Michigan’s football coach would be viewed … with one win.

Harbaugh understands all of this, of course. Which is why he didn’t want to say much Monday. Besides, what is there to say?

It’s only the biggest game of his coaching career at Michigan. He knows it. The sport’s cognoscenti knows it. His team knows it. Michigan fans know it. You know it.

And if that sounds like an overstatement, well, this is how sports work, especially football, particularly college football, where a single game, which is also to say a single play, can define how a coach and sometimes a player is remembered.

Harbaugh knows this, too.

He experienced it first against his brother, John, when he coached against him in the Super Bowl in 2013, and his San Francisco 49ers had four plays from deep in Baltimore territory to get into the end zone to win it. If one of the plays works, if a pass interference is called, the younger Harbaugh is the Super Bowl-winning coach.

He experienced it next against Ohio State, at Ohio Stadium, as his Wolverines were protecting a late lead and needed a fourth-down stop to win the game. A controversial spot of quarterback J.T. Barrett’s scramble gave the Buckeyes a first down and the chance to eventually win the game.

A few inches the other way and Harbaugh wins the Big Ten East, likely the conference title game and makes the Playoff. Perhaps that path lands Harbaugh a few more recruits and, well, you get the idea, the domino effect is endless.

That was 2016. Here we are five years later. The story can get away in a hurry.

It can also return when few expect it. Harbaugh told reporters in the summer that U-M was either gonna beat Ohio State or die trying.

When asked about the comment Monday, and asked about how “die trying” comes to life this week, he said:

“It comes all the way to life.”

You see? Seven words. Nothing.

When asked in what way the “die trying” phrase might come to life he said:

“It’s here. It’s happening.”

Yes, it is. Though lest you think Harbaugh didn’t say anything, he did acknowledge this:

“Both teams have a lot on the line. It’s a true playoff in that sense, in the College Football Playoff world. This is the start of the playoffs. The team that wins will advance, the team that doesn’t won’t. It’s that, and it’s also the big game, The Game, the rivalry.”

Harbaugh isn’t the only one who is tired of talking, at least publicly, about The Game, his record in The Game, his prediction for The Game when he played in it — he said he didn’t like to pontificate about things in the past. He’s said that before. He’ll say it again.

Linebacker Josh Ross lamented the missed opportunity to play in The Game last year. U-M canceled because of COVID-19. Some who adore the Buckeyes wondered if the Wolverines were ducking. To which Ross said:

“B.S.”

And?

“It definitely was frustration, for sure,” he said. “We want to play that game — we always want to play that game. That’s a game that’s always circled on the calendar … but, at the end of the day, last year’s over, that’s done. And to be honest, as players, we’re tired of talking — we’re ready to just do it.”

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Of course, he’s ready to win. Everyone who loves the Wolverines is ready for a win. They’re just not expecting a win, even though Michigan matches up with Ohio State in a sneaky kind of way; the Buckeyes love to throw, the Wolverines love to chase quarterbacks.

Oddsmakers — not to mention history and most sane college football observers — don’t expect much to change Saturday at Michigan Stadium. Ohio State is explosive and motivated and playing its best football of the season. It’s a more talented team, too.

How much more?

That’s hard to say. What isn’t hard to say is that one of these years the Wolverines are going to end this losing streak against the Buckeyes (it’s now at eight) and change their story. It’s not unreasonable to think this could be that year.

Harbaugh isn’t going to say this either. He doesn’t need to. Saying nothing says it all.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.  



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