CHICAGO — As someone who coached in — and won — three national championship games, Urban Meyer has seen some things.
However, nothing, he says, compares to what Meyer witnessed Nov. 26, 2016 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus.
“That was the most intense game I’ve ever [coached],” Meyer said Monday at Big Ten Media Days.
You probably don’t need a reminder of what happened that afternoon, but in case you did, it was the day Meyer and Ohio State knocked off Jim Harbaugh and Michigan, 30–27 in double overtime. The game had massive implications, too, as the win sent the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff while the loss caused the Wolverines to miss a shot at a Big Ten title as they wound up in the Orange Bowl.
“Every inch, every second, every foot — it mattered. And we were playing against a very good team,” Meyer said. “The feeling after that game, I just remember it was exhaustion. Same with our players.”
But while the win certainly resonated with Meyer in one regard, it hit Harbaugh and his Michigan program in the opposite fashion. The Wolverines ended up losing three of their final four games in 2016 following an 8–0 start. Michigan was on the doorstep of a breakthrough in Year 2 under Harbaugh. Instead, it wound up with the exact same record it had in Harbaugh’s first season in Ann Arbor.
That loss in Columbus stung. And it still stings.
“I hope [it motivates us] a lot. I know it has a lot of us. Myself included,” Harbaugh said Tuesday. “Lost three out of the last four games. Okay, good. Maybe that will motivate us to put more into it. Coach better. Play better. Train harder. Put more of our heart into each and every one of those ball games.”
Harbaugh was asked if he self-evaluates himself at the end of a season. He said yes, of course. Most good coaches do. He even pointed out a specific point in the game against Ohio State he wished he could have back. Harbaugh singled out calling a pass play on Michigan’s own goal line that led to a Malik Hooker interception for a touchdown.
Mistakes happen in coaching and playing, but some are certainly bigger than others. That was just one example. There are surely others.
The end result was Michigan heading to the Orange Bowl. It felt like a missed opportunity. The Wolverines had 11 players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft — the most in school history — yet they still couldn’t beat Ohio State, still couldn’t win the Big Ten and still finished 10–3.
Michigan was so close, but the way it finished showed it still had a little way to go before it catches Ohio State, which has turned into a perennial College Football Playoff contender under Meyer.
“The taste of last year, I think we were six points away from being undefeated. That leaves a taste in your mouth of how close we can be, how close we were,” senior offensive lineman Mason Cole said. “The guys that were here last year know how good we can be and now we’ve just got to finish.”
Michigan will be one of the youngest teams in the country in 2017, the same way Ohio State was a year ago. The Buckeyes are the prohibitive preseason favorite in the Big Ten as voted by the media; the Wolverines are probably a year away from that.
Michigan is still chasing Ohio State — and Penn State, really, given that the Nittany Lions won the league last season. Harbaugh and Co. found that out the hard way at the end of last year.
“I just felt that it would take us putting more into it, it was going to take better coaching and we have to put more into this,” Harbaugh said. “And the players have to deal with that too. We’ve gotta give more effort, we’ve got to pour more of our heart and soul into this.”
“You want to high-five in the locker room after the game or do you want to feel like when you lose? We’ll use that as motivation. Strap on the iron jock, work like crazy and get the job done.”