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Why Michigan’s trip to Penn State isn’t the ‘defining’ game some keep saying it is

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The Wolverines are defined by their failures in big moments so far.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

We hear it every time Michigan football plays a ranked opponent amid some struggles or adversity that they have faced.

“This is the defining game of the Jim Harbaugh era.”

“Michigan needs to have this one to prove it’s for real.”

We could keep going all day.

That has been a popular take throughout the week leading up to the night game at No. 7 Penn State on Saturday. A few weeks ago, the same was said about the Iowa game. A few weeks prior to that, they said it about the trip to Wisconsin.

Saturday’s game is incredibly important for Michigan, and might just be the most important game that Jim Harbaugh has coached since he arrived in Ann Arbor not only because it’s the next one, but also because it can either back up what you’re already defined as or can show that you’re capable of going out and doing something we have not seen them do in his five seasons on the job. And really, the decade or so that preceded him as well.

“What do you mean ‘already defined as?’ How so.”

Exhibit A:

  • 1-9 vs. top-10 opponents
  • 0-7 as an underdog
  • 1-6 on the road against ranked opponents
  • Five losses by at least 21 points, three of which came in their last three losses

The one win against a top ten opponent came against Wisconsin in Ann Arbor in 2016. The one road win against a ranked team came against a woefully average Michigan State squad last season (though, that’s a rivalry game and they still deserve mega props for that).

One of those losses as an underdog on the road against a top ten opponent came in the very venue they play on Saturday in 2017 in a 42-13 loss to Penn State.

Saturday is not a defining game for Michigan. What they are has already been defined.

This program does not perform in these types of situations.

There’s not a single analytic this week that suggests Michigan should win this game. There is not a single expert out there who thinks they can do it. Vegas installed them as a decent-sized underdog right off the bat. And as far as the on-field product goes, it certainly has not passed the eyeball test.

So with all of that said, if they go out and lose this game like everyone expects them to, your reaction is up to you. However, if that reaction is met with shock and awe, well, that’s on you.

What’s the definition of insanity again?

Michigan is talented enough, especially on the defensive side of the ball, to go out and get this done. Even what they have on offense should be good enough if players are put in positions to succeed. But there again lies the problem. Far too often this is a tentative, conservative and confused game plan that puts the Wolverines on their heels to start a game.

It’s like going into a boxing match and when the bell rings, both hands are tied behind your back as you just wait to be sucker punched while you figure out how to untie yourself.

No. Saturday is not the “defining” game of the Harbaugh era. What Michigan is under him has been well-defined already. Winning this game on Saturday would be a tremendous first step in redefining what we already think we know about them because three wins over Rutgers, Iowa and Illinois aren’t enough proof that this is an ascending football team. If they go out and get this one on Saturday night, then we can start sitting here and having that discussion amongst ourselves as to whether or not they can pull it together.

Then we can start talk about this group getting on a roll and giving themselves a shot that last weekend in November. There’s a defining game for you.

I don’t believe this game on Saturday night at Penn State in a white out condition to be a death march like so many of the fans believe it be. This Penn State group isn’t the juggernaut they were back in 2017 with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley. That said, if you don’t come ready to play and turn over the football, this one could snowball just like the WIsconsin one, if not worse. After what Michigan did to them last year in Ann Arbor, you can bet that James Franklin and company will not mind running it up if the situation arises.

Michigan will give itself a chance if it takes care of the football. I’d love nothing more than to eat the largest serving of crow in the world if a magical switch flips and suddenly the offense begins to click against an elite defense and all of the evidence of Harbaugh saying the offense is hitting its stride comes together down the stretch.

However, this feels more like a program trying to talk itself into its ability to win these types of games and will themselves into improvement than one that is actually capable of both of those things right now.

If Harbaugh goes out and leads his team to victory in this game, this would easily be his biggest win since he arrived at Michigan given not only what is at stake the rest of the year, but also what the resume is in these types of situations.

This one would be the first step in changing a narrative. A course correction, if you will. It gives you a shot to play some more meaningful football games with five of them left on the schedule and get to THE defining game on Nov. 30.

If they lose like they are expected to, it simply is what it is and they are what they are and always have been.

And if they lose and aren’t competitive, it might start to get ugly around here, even more so than the week that followed the Wisconsin game.

And nobody wants that.