INDIANAPOLIS – Jim Harbaugh allayed concerns about his presence in the hot seat as he enters his seventh season in Michigan, using historical data of the most unexpected kind.
Harbaugh, who continues to chase after that elusive coaching victory over Ohio State and Michigan’s first Big Ten Championship since 2004, is he hearing the noise?
“It’s almost like WWII propaganda machines,” Harbaugh told Big Ten Media Days on Thursday before lowering his voice to a whisper. “‘Stop! Stop! No need to try! You don’t stand a chance. Go no further!'”
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Then he offered a 50-cent motivational coin.
“We do not subscribe to this at all,” he said. “We are trying to reach the top or die trying.”
In 2021, Harbaugh is banking on a new defense under the leadership of first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald and a revamped staff that includes four new defensive assistants to silence critics.
Defense has been the glaring weakness of a 2020 season in which the Wolverines finished 2-4 and allowed 34.5 points per game. Michigan parted ways with coordinator Don Brown, whose blitz schedule never fully recovered after Michigan’s 62-39 loss to Ohio State on Nov. 24, 2018.
The figures confirm this. The Wolverines averaged 15.6 points allowed in 37 games under Brown before this loss to the Buckeyes. They have allowed 27.6 points per game since. The blow to Brown was simple: Michigan allowed 16.3 points per game to teams outside the top 10 and 33.8 per game against the top 10 teams.
The Wolverines are 2-10 in top 10 games. That mark, and the 0-5 record against the Buckeyes, are Harbaugh’s evergreen criticisms.
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To win these games, Michigan must have an elite defense. The 1997 national championship team with Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson remains the norm. The 2006 and 2016 teams also had good defenses, but they couldn’t stop Ohio State.
The bottom fell last year during a season impacted by COVID-19. The Wolverines struggled so hard that linebacker Josh Ross decided to return before the end of the season.
“I made the decision to come back long before Coach Brown left,” said Ross, a fifth-year senior. “I had to do it. It was obvious to me because it wasn’t Michigan.”
Macdonald was an assistant with the Ravens from 2014-2020, so it’s easy to bond with Harbaugh’s brother John. The Ravens have ranked in the top three defensive scorers in the NFL over the past three seasons. John told Jim Macdonald was prepared to be the Ravens’ next defensive coordinator
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“(John Harbaugh) said (Macdonald) is really smart and was downstairs with the Ravens when they changed their defense, made up their defense and their ploy,” said Jim Harbaugh. “Very detailed and a very good teacher.”
Why would John Harbaugh let his brother have Macdonald? The reason was contained in a personal message.
“Well, I really love Michigan football and I really love you so I want you both to be successful,” said Jim Harbaugh.
Jim Harbaugh appreciated the early results of the changes leading up to fall camp. He has repeatedly spoken about the open house ideas at defensive meetings. Shaun Nua (defensive line) returns, but George Helow (secondary), Steve Clinkscale (defensive back) and Ron Bellamy (safety) are now working in the room.
The players agreed. Senior Aidan Hutchinson, an SN Preseason All-American second team, returned after suffering a season-ending leg injury in 2020. He said NFL style terminology and principles helped and the Wolverines should have a more diversified diet accordingly. Hutchinson spent the summer watching the Ravens movie, but he said there were new wrinkles that were working.
“There are so many of us,” Hutchinson said. “We can bring out a 4-3 or a 3-4, more or less. Whatever we want to do, we can do it. That’s what is so great. It’s the variety. It gives guys. a chance to show off their athleticism. “
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Hutchinson and Ross also said Macdonald was nice. Hutchinson mentioned a 1.5-hour meeting in Macdonald’s office last week. Ross recounted a similar phone call with the new coordinator. Football was only part of the conversation, and Ross said the ability to “talk comfortably” made all the difference.
“We are working very well as a unit,” said Ross. “It’s not just Mike Macdonald. It is not just a person. It’s everyone. We are united. They worked very well together. I can’t wait to enter the camp.
Of course, this is all up for discussion in July. The Wolverines have allowed the Buckeyes 42.2 points per game in five games under Harbaugh, and that streak is part of an eight-game losing streak against the four defending Big Ten champions. Last year’s episode of The Game was canceled due to COVID-19, and Michigan didn’t have much of a chance fighting for the Big Ten East in 2021.
Maybe that’s why Harbaugh was more cowardly than usual during Big Ten Media Days. He was more excited and less combative when answering questions, and Michigan players spent more time confronting Ohio State questions than dodging them. The inability to beat the Buckeyes is a reality, but there are two ways this propaganda can work during the preseason.
“You can’t find a good thing about Michigan football on social media right now,” Hutchinson said. “I love it.”
In this case, Michigan and Harbaugh’s best self-defense will be the defense itself.
“You can tell there’s confidence in the room,” Harbaugh said. “Guys can say what they think and be heard and then they fight and have a good result. So that’s great.”