|When all looked lost, they found a way to fight back. (Gene J. Puskar, AP)|
There is a strain of Michigan fan I have seen, most frequently on Twitter, who is having a terrible time fathoming why Michigan isn't Michigan again in Year Five of Harbaugh. Essentially, a "this is not what I signed up for" sort of breakdown that looks at all of the ways in which Michigan is failing to live up to its historical grandiosity. I understand that feeling on a primal level, that this is just another false messiah after a decade and a half of wandering in the desert. Though some may accuse me of setting up a straw man, if you've been on Michigan Twitter, you more than likely have seen someone like this or you have the best curated follow list I've ever seen.
I'm not going to call this a moral victory, because it's not and because Michigan shouldn't do the moral victory thing. It's a loss. It's another brick in the narrative about Harbaugh's teams. It's plenty of evidence to those who want it that Michigan cannot beat teams of equal or superior talent, especially on the road. Acknowledged.
This is not the world Michigan fans grew up in, and for many of us, we cannot figure out why things are different. Michigan plays in what is perpetually one of the two hardest divisions in college football (alongside the SEC West) and that is a division that still counts Rutgers among its members. Michigan will always face at least three stringent tests on its divisional schedule, all from teams that consider Michigan a rival to one degree or another, not to mention the six-year-long cross-division lock-in with Wisconsin, and that's before you get to non-conference scheduling and deciding that tradition is important and bringing back Michigan/Notre Dame because the people want it. This is not an excuse, if Michigan wants to be something like the Michigan of old, it has to face this down and win those games. The problem for many lies in that Ohio State seems to run through this with maybe just one hiccup a year, and Michigan can't seemingly leave its house without stubbing its toe.
But the thing is, Michigan can't be the Michigan of old anymore. It's impossible. The divisional structure means that Michigan can't tie for the Big Ten championship any longer, which added a large number of titles to Michigan's trophy case back in the day. Players have much more agency over where they start their career and where they end their career, as evidenced by the transfer portal (this is a net positive in my mind, even when it hurts Michigan.) The state of Michigan's population has shrunk, meaning that a state that already did not turn out Division I football talent at a high level compared to say Ohio, is turning out fewer players Michigan should theoretically have a primary shot at signing (yes, Michigan has already recruited nationally, yes, Michigan has always gone into Ohio and got kids, but the demographics here are no lie.) There are other challenges, writers smarter and better than I am have listed them for you in the past. The world has changed and sometimes the best we can do is start over.
Which brings me to the second half. Jim Harbaugh told Maria Taylor at halftime that he thought that the second half would be Michigan's finest hour. College Football Twitter would have some fun with this, how perfectly Michigan Man it was, how once again, a Michigan Man invoked World War II and the like. But Harbaugh's reference struck me because it was not a perfect parallel, but it was the choice of words of a leader who looked at the odds his side was facing and instead of folding, chose to rally his people. And in Harbaugh's case, it damn near worked.
For the next 30 minutes of game time, Michigan looked like something closer to the Michigan that people thought they could be. It is easy to say that, save the one coverage error by Don Brown, leaving a safety on KJ Hamler (yes, we know, we know), Michigan's defense stiffened, forcing Penn State into punt after punt. Meanwhile, Michigan used a variety of offensive tools, including all four of its big-time receivers to bring the game back to within one possession, and was driving late to tie. Two critical plays by Nico Collins, including a crucial fourth down conversion, Erick All's snag to set up first and goal, and then a fourth and goal from the three. Penn State did get pressure and forced Shea to scramble a little, but he threw a ball in a window and spot that gave Ronnie Bell a chance to make a play. Unfortunately, it hit Bell in the chest and fell to the turf and the moment evaporated.
I felt for Ronnie Bell when they showed him on the sidelines distraught. It's so easy to forget that the players are college kids and its also easier to forget that they are humans, not digital avatars that only react the ways in which they are programmed to do so. I felt deeply for him because no one in that stadium felt worse about what happened that he did. There is no worse feeling than believing you have let people down that you care about. At the 10:40 mark of the fourth, Michigan absolutely needing a third down conversion to keep things rolling, Ronnie Bell caught a screen pass three yards behind the line of scrimmage, made his defender miss, gets the first down, and then keeps going. Thirty-five yards later, Michigan has first and goal and though it did not quite go down as expected, four players later, Shea got a push from Ben Mason to bring Michigan back within seven. Michigan isn't in a position to tie later without what Ronnie Bell did in this moment and for too many people, that is easy to forget.
The one positive takeaway I will have from the fourth down that didn't make it was that so many of his teammates were picking Ronnie Bell up. There were notions this past fortnight that fans don't see all of what goes on with this team behind the scenes, and that is true. But if there is something that gives me hope going forward this season is that Michigan got punched in the mouth in the first half, tasted the blood, and pulled the strap of the shield on tighter and walked back into the face of doom once more. That isn't how things looked or felt at Camp Randall. This was different, this can be built upon. But the key is, it has to happen. You cannot waste this moment. You have a perfect chance to change some of the narratives next week against the Irish. Don't waste it.