Where can you find “enthusiasm unknown to mankind?” It’s seemingly everywhere but Michigan in the Big Ten in 2020.
It’s at Northwestern, where Pat Fitzgerald led the “Fighting Rece Davises” to a 17-7 victory against Wisconsin. It’s at Indiana, where Tom Allen’s postgame speech after a 49-42 loss to Ohio State received the viral treatment. It’s implicit at Ohio State, where a 49-42 victory feels like a loss because of the national championship expectations in Columbus.
It was at Rutgers, too, under first-year coach Greg Schiano — before the Wolverines rallied from a 17-point deficit and fought through triple overtime for an exhausting 48-42 victory against the Scarlet Knights.
That circles back to Ann Arbor and sixth-year coach Jim Harbaugh and the everlasting what-to-do question after a 2-3 start to the season. Harbaugh didn’t make promises when he took the job in 2015, other than the Wolverines would attack each day with an “enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”
It was nowhere to be found in the first half against Rutgers. Michigan had 15 rushing attempts for 17 yards; that continued a 10-quarter stretch in which the Wolverines had 52 rushing attempts for 77 yards.
Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral became the third quarterback to notch a 300-yard passing game against the Wolverines this season — another indictment against defensive coordinator Don Brown. Twitter wanted to fire Harbaugh at halftime. Michigan was desperate for a spark to generate enthusiasm of any kind.
Backup quarterback Cade McNamara provided that spark after replacing Joe Milton. He looks like the best option for the remainder of the season. He broke the scoring drought with a 46-yard touchdown pass to Cornelius Johnson in the first half and led the comeback in the second half. McNamara finished 27 of 36 passing for 260 yards, five total touchdowns and no interceptions.
It wasn’t just McNamara. Giles Jackson’s 95-yard kickoff return opened the second half and turned a 10-point deficit into a one-score game. The dormant running game picked up in the second half behind Hassan Haskins, who finished with 23 carries for 112 yards and a score.
The defense couldn’t close, however, and the Scarlet Knights forced overtime on touchdown pass and 2-point conversion from Vedral with 27 seconds left.
That led to some classic “Big Ten After Dark.” Both kickers missed field goals in the first overtime. Both teams scored touchdowns in the second. Haskins scored in the third overtime, and Daxton Hill intercepted Vedral on the game’s final play. Michigan players stormed the field afterward.
It’s a victory tempered with the fact it’s Rutgers. The what-to-do questions will continue with Harbaugh heading into a matchup against Penn State (0-5), the only traditional Big Ten power that has it worse than the Wolverines this season.
If there is an excuse for some programs, then it’s that enthusiasm can be hard to generate in a losing season during the COVID-19 pandemic. Penn State and LSU can relate, but those programs have better excuses. The Nittany Lions have played in New Year’s Day 6 bowls three of the last four years and lost Micah Parsons and Journey Brown before the season. The Tigers won the national championship last year then lost 14 players to the NFL Draft along with assistant coaches Joe Brady and Dave Aranda.
They can tee up a mulligan in 2021 with less ill will from their fan bases.
Do the Wolverines have the same case? Receiver Nico Collins and cornerback Ambry Thomas chose not to play this season. Starting tackles Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes are out. So are the two best pass-rushers in Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye. Linebacker Cam McGrone left Saturday’s game with an injury. Those are the players whose names will be called on Days 2 and 3 of the 2021 NFL Draft.
It could be worse. It could be Michigan’s southern cousins in Tennessee. The Vols lost their fifth straight game Saturday after an offseason where the enthusiasm clouded realistic expectations.
Which brings us back to the Harbaugh question: What are the expectations for 2020 and beyond? Can that be answered over the next three weeks, against Penn State, Maryland (maybe) and Ohio State? It’s not the easiest decision for Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel.
Fire Harbaugh, and there is the risk factor of knowing that seven years of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke produced a 46-42 record — a stretch in which the Wolverines had three losing seasons and were nowhere near relevant on the national stage.
Retaining Harbaugh and sticking to the outdated “Michigan Man” mantra without tangible results could push the program further back the pecking order in the Big Ten. We’re not just talking about Ohio State either. Indiana and Northwestern have been more competitive in 2020.
Harbaugh is 49-21 at Michigan. He has delivered 10-win seasons and top-10 recruiting classes, but the victories against top-10 teams have not followed. He has hit .500 in eight games against Michigan State and Notre Dame, but that 0-5 record against Ohio State remains the tag line. After all, Urban Meyer finished his career with the Buckeyes with a 7-0 record against the Wolverines.
If Harbaugh reaches the inverse of that — a 0-7 record that runs through his contract expiration date in 2021 — then that would be the most logical point for Michigan and Harbaugh to part ways. If the Wolverines go that route, however, the toxicity levels will reach new heights amid a program where expectations have not been met.
Maybe Harbaugh found it once and for all in triple-overtime at Rutgers.
You’ll have a better answer in three weeks in Columbus.