STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Overheard Sunday morning in a hotel elevator, among two Penn State fans: "Did you see Coach Harbaugh's interview? He looked shellshocked. One of those coaches with his job on the line."
Now, wait, wait, whoa, whoa, whoa. By no rational standard are Michigan and Jim Harbaugh even one smidgen shy of lucky to have one another. Yet the observation did carry its narrative value. Somehow, it never seemed we'd find Harbaugh amid his third Michigan season, in a little interview room beneath Beaver Stadium, the door opening and shutting to the sounds of merriment outside, while he politely answered polite questions about trying to extract value from a dented season with dashed goals.
How? How did we think Harbaugh would avoid this normal fate of college football, with its shifting forms and its weary searches for commanding quarterbacks to encourage forlorn college towns? Was it the cult of the coach run amok that led us to the mysterious supposition that Harbaugh would be immune?
Did we get tipsy on NFL mystique?
"Yeah, I thought their offense played extremely well. Understatement," he said of Penn State with a daze that might not have risen to the level of shellshocked. "They were hitting on all cylinders. The back (Saquon Barkley) was really good, as advertised. And they were hitting on all cylinders. The quarterback was hot, and the receivers made plays downfield, and it was impressive."
After two Michigan seasons where everything went up and up and up in maybe the country's most-watched coaching situation, here's a first leveling-off. Study the eight losses (in 33 games) Harbaugh has taken, and the 42-13 Penn State pounding does stand out. It's neither fluky nor absurd nor first-game nor first-season. It doesn't hinge on a suspect spot of the ball. It showcased a Michigan offense that plunged to No. 98 nationally in yards per game, No. 99 in yards per play, and did anyone expect such a normal human thing from Harbaugh's third season?
If anything, Michigan's bursts of offensive prowess in the second quarter, as the score narrowed briefly to 14-13, misled the eye until the eye finally noticed the 269 total yards, lowest figure of the year. Instead of a fresh, novel uptick, it's a typical college football slog, an offense rummaging around looking for some dynamism.
That means an offense in a special situation with a special coach in a special college town has a pedestrian, run-of-the-mill issue seen in town upon college town.
It's also a mid-third-year loss that shooed Michigan off the edge of the national picture, out of the AP poll released Sunday and spurred its players into an unwanted conversation during the waning minutes, the conversation about how to derive meaning from here, with here being 5-2.
"You know, some of us were talking about it on the sideline near the end of the game," quarterback John O'Korn said. "Last year at this point, Penn State was, for me growing up here, I thought that was one of the worst Penn State teams I've ever seen. They went on (and won the Big Ten) and should have won the Rose Bowl, so we can be as good as we want to be. We're gonna need some help now if we want to accomplish all of our goals, but like I said, it's up to us, the guys within our four walls, to make a decision, to make this what we want it to be."
"With college football," running back Karan Higdon said, "things happen all the time."
Yes, they do, to the point of a cherished senselessness. It's just that looking down the pike back in December 2014, the old tool of things-happen-all-the-time optimism wouldn't have seemed necessary once Harbaugh hit his third year, even though of course it could turn out this way.
"I don't know, either," Harbaugh said. "Yeah, we're gonna regroup, we're gonna refit, retool, get back to work, more opportunities ahead of us."
And: "Nobody can help us but us."
Is it solvable within this season?
His postgame message? "The fake love's gone," O'Korn relayed. "There's no bandwagon. You know, it's us. That's what we want. Whether we're doing great or we're doing bad, it's just all about us. That's what it's gonna be about is us as a team, the guys inside, nobody outside. You know, we'll find out a lot about this team and this program over the next few weeks. We've got a great group of guys, don't expect anybody to quit or give up. We're 5-2, I think everybody's freaking out outside of our four walls."
In this case, the freaking-out stems partly from the fantastic and sacrosanct coach, and the way he repaired a seven-year malaise so rapidly in fall 2015. Now he, and they, will play Rutgers, Minnesota, at Maryland, at Wisconsin and Ohio State, and for much of that, the national eye won't look much.
Instead, it will look to …
While No. 2 Penn State (7-0) goes barreling into No. 6 Ohio State (6-1), the corner of one eye, remarkably, must tilt toward South Bend. There, Notre Dame has persisted with football operations in secrecy. Notre Dame has done so after a 4-8 season in 2016 after which everyone presumed its program disbanded. It has done so after a 20-19 home loss to Georgia on Sept. 9 discontinued the need to pay any attention to Notre Dame this season, even as Georgia has turned out 7-0 and No. 3 as it heads as a heavy favorite into Saturday's game against Florida in Jacksonville.
Supposedly, Notre Dame continued playing games in ensuing weeks from there, and kept on counting wins until it reached 5-1. Then, it rushed for 377 shellacking yards in a 49-14 shooing of Southern California from the big picture, with marvels of running back Josh Adams (the nation's No. 6 rusher, with 191 yards Saturday night) and quarterback Brandon Wimbush (106 rushing yards) leaving Notre Dame's last five games looking rich in intrigue.
They go like this: N.C. State (6-1) at home on Oct. 28, Wake Forest (4-3) at home on Nov. 4, at Miam (6-0) on Nov. 11, Navy (5-2) at home on Nov. 18 and at a rising Stanford (5-2) on Nov. 25.
As for that middle game, Notre Dame at Miami …
What is this, 1988?
Must we watch that thing seriously?
Seriously, we must. It's college football. You wake up one day, and you have a hapless player from a hapless Tennessee (3-4), haplessly, hopelessly trailing Alabama 28-0, then scoring, then flipping off fans in a rare bounty of haplessness. You have Jimbo Fisher, 2-4 at Florida State, 0-3 at home, getting into it with a taunting fan. You have some mighty Frogs in Fort Worth, holding Kansas to the Big 12's lowest-ever total yardage (21) and heading toward a worthy match against a 5-2 team in … Ames! And then suddenly, you have little need to look at Jim Harbaugh for a while, and with the time you used to use for that, look, good grief, here's that unlovable old wretched old Notre Dame has-been, Brian Kelly.
That job hasn't wrecked him after all.