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The final chapter of Michigan’s season and the importance of locker-room unity

Jim Harbaugh and Michigan are on a bye week, but they’re preparing for yet another defining stretch of games. We take a look at how locker-room morale will impact on-field results.

Playing the game of football is never easy, and the Michigan Wolverines have already had one of the toughest schedules in the nation, facing four Top 25 teams to date. That number will increase during the final three games of the regular season when they take on currently ranked No. 1 Ohio State on November 30.

Before Michigan can shift their focus to the Buckeyes, they have other tasks to tackle, they’ll be playing two teams who take playing the Wolverines very seriously, Michigan State and Indiana. Michigan State is having a down 4-4 year and Mark Dantonio may be on his way out the door, but they still are the No. 20 total defense in the nation. Indiana is having one of their best seasons in decades with a 7-2 record and the No. 18 total defense along with the No. 15 passing offense.

Michigan may be on a bye week at the moment, but the team realizes the gauntlet thereafter and how important it is to get prepared despite having the week off.

“Physically, we’ve got to get them rested, got to get them prepared,” Jim Harbaugh said this week. “I’m going to take some of the physicality out of how we prepare in practice. Mentally, getting them ready for a three-game war coming up, none more important than the one we play against Michigan State. We’ll keep the blinders on that.”

It’s a three-game war, and the most important game is the next game, which happens to be against the Spartans. The blinders need be kept on each week, it’s easy to look ahead and think and talk about the Buckeyes, but that’s not how you beat Ohio State or the next opponent on the schedule. The only way to do so is preparing in the same manner on a weekly basis.

Michigan State and Indiana can’t be overlooked, there’s too much recent history where games have been nail-biters to just trot onto the field with limited preparation and focus and expect to walk out of the stadium victorious.

“We have to get ready for the stretch run and we have to use the bye week to do that, especially fundamentally,” Don Brown said. “Sometimes, what gets left to chance is … during a game week, you’re running plays in practice and the timing of your fundamentals gets cut. This week, Coach is right back to giving us extended periods for individual, and that will really help us grow as a football team.”

The season is reaching its crescendo, which is undoubtedly the match-up versus Ohio State, but Michigan must go into The Game with momentum, hitting sweet and powerful notes along the way, not sour notes that are off key. For the crescendo to coincide with a magnum opus, victory must be attained in all three games. The buildup, however, to Ohio State, involves righting any wrong, correcting any flaw, turning weaknesses into strengths, eliminating creeping doubt in favor of overwhelming belief.

I was watching Inside the NFL and something Ray Lewis said really struck a chord in me and I’ll relate it to the Michigan football locker room and that of any other that faces doubt and criticism from the outside:

“It’s one thing about sitting on the other side of the table (as an analyst) always giving our expertise when it comes to this game, but the only thing that matters is locker room to locker room, what every person in that locker room feels.”

Upsets happen on a weekly basis in sports, no pundit is 100% accurate in their predictions, and are usually more wrong than they’ll ever be right. It’s just the nature of the beast that is sports media. No matter how much film an outsider will look at that will lead them to their warranted or incorrect conclusions, the time we put in to evaluate the good and bad of a team is merely a tiny sliver compared to the round the clock dedication players and coaches put in. They usually know more.

Take a look at the Washington Nationals, who just won the World Series. The Nats were just 19-31 through their first 50 games, there was talk on the outside that manager Davey Martinez might get fired, and just about every analyst, every fan, said their season was a lost cause. None of that outside noise mattered, what mattered was how everyone in that clubhouse felt. The Nationals believed in themselves when no one else did, they believed in themselves in good times and bad, and that brotherhood led to one of the most improbable runs in baseball history.

The Wolverines have been believing in each other for quite some time now. After getting shell-shocked against Wisconsin in a 35-14 loss, Michigan has played tough and physical football.

“You’re going to take that game and two things are going to happen: (The players) are going to sink into mediocrity or they’re going to utilize that as energy, emotion and just the improvement necessary to move forward,” Brown said. ”These are Michigan football players. They’re going to move forward. They have no choice. And, I’m proud of the way we’ve performed over the last six weeks. I think we’ve played three top-20 teams, so it’s not like it’s chopped liver. All we can do is play the schedule, who’s in front of us. I’m just happy with our response, our energy, our effort and our laser focus at practice.”

Jim Harbaugh told Maria Taylor at halftime of the Penn State game when down 21-7 that the second half would be Michigan’s finest hour, a statement nobody bought into on the outside, but inside the locker room Harbaugh’s comment had truth attached to it.

“They got it to 21-7 at half, and of course Jim Harbaugh said to Maria (Taylor) , ‘This is about to be Michigan’s finest hour,’ and I think we were all like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he said that.’”, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said this week. “Sure enough, the second half they outgained Penn State, 230-80 and came so close to tying that game late. (Then) completely, in the rain, dominated Notre Dame, and Notre Dame never had a chance in that game at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. We know what happened last week against Maryland, so they’ve got 10 straight quarters of being the team I think a lot of people thought they’d be all year.”

The important thing for Michigan is to continue with the habits they’ve created in the film room, on the practice field, and on game day. What they’ve done the past ten quarters is working, the opposition has had little to no success. Are there things to work on? Most definitely. Will they correct the hiccups and improve upon them before this ‘three-game war’? Only time will tell. At the very least, the Wolverines have put themselves in a situation where opponents need to take them seriously, need to fear them as well.

“It’s another year, it’s a different group. They (Ohio State) better be careful now because we’re hitting our stride too,” Brown said. “This is a two-way street, and I know our guys will be ready in three weeks.”

“If they keep playing the way they have the last 10 quarters, it’s going to be great football because they’re home against Michigan State, (and) I can’t imagine them losing that game,” Herbstreit said. “Indiana is a little bit tricky, but I would think they’d win that game, and then, here we go with Ohio State on Thanksgiving weekend, which will be awesome.”

Maybe nobody else will give Michigan a chance against the Buckeyes, but that really doesn’t matter anyway. Michigan’s the one that has to give themselves a chance, and it all starts with believing in one another.