Michigan's motivation this week goes beyond one punt gone wrong

By Monday, Jim Harbaugh and Michigan's players were sick of talking about "the way things ended a year ago."

The botched punt that turned into a last-second, game-winning touchdown return for the Spartans still pops up in their consciousness from time to time, of course. This week they are all doing their best to stuff that memory back into the dark recesses from which it came. Harbaugh said he had previously hoped he could go his whole football career without ever being on the wrong end of a game that ended like last year's loss to rival Michigan State.

"Obviously that didn't happen," Harbaugh said before making it clear he was ready to move on.

Mentions of the play still sting, of course, but the Wolverines won't be playing any looping video of Jalen Watts-Jackson sprinting to the corner of the Big House's north end zone for motivation around the locker room this week. They don't plan to talk about it in meeting rooms or holler to each other across the practice field about revenge. They'll try not to even think about it other than the countless times they're forced by reporters, classmates and random well-intentioned well-wishers this week.

Perhaps that's because of Harbaugh's stringent "Every game is a championship game" policy. Coach and players both echoed that sentiment starting immediately after another blowout victory against Illinois this past Saturday. But perhaps it's also in some small way because that play, as much as it grates on them, doesn't quite embody the full frustration of their recent history with Michigan State.

To lose on one of college football's trademark fluky, chaotic final plays is heartbreaking. But to lose with no doubt that yours was the lesser team on a given Saturday is embarrassing. That's what happened every other time this group of Michigan players has taken the field against their in-state rival.

"That's what I remember, just how dominant they've been over this long stretch," senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. "I haven't won against Michigan State my whole time here."

Only fifth-year senior receiver Amara Darboh, who was a true freshman playing mostly special teams in 2012, has played in a victory over the Spartans. The 2013 and 2014 meetings each came in East Lansing, and Michigan State thoroughly bullied Michigan in both. The Wolverines compiled a grand total of 13 rushing yards in those two games and scored only one touchdown -- a garbage-time plunge by De'Veon Smith with minutes remaining in the 2014 match-up.

"Really the pure domination," Lewis said Monday. "When we went up to East Lansing, seeing how dominant they were against our offense. Basically us having no hope in the game, that stings more. When it's not even competitive even more, that stings more than a game where we fought our hardest and we lost on the last play."

Michigan State has won seven of the last eight games between the two bitter neighbors -- a streak that coincides with the powerhouse-building tenure of Spartans coach Mark Dantonio. Harbaugh called Dantonio's work down the road "one of the best college football coaching jobs in the history of the game" earlier this week. The first pillar Dantonio planted in that run was the ability to regularly beat his school's old tormentor.

Harbaugh has come a long way toward his own history-worthy coaching job in the last year and a half at Michigan. He's untangled many of the knots that the program's former caretakers tied in their tenures. Before the Wolverines can assume what their faithful believe to be the team's rightful place in the college football world, they have to restore their spot as the state's pre-eminent power.

Anyone with eyeballs and basic cable can see why No. 2 Michigan is a 21-point favorite in the annual meeting this weekend. Still, actually beating Dantonio and company is a necessary bow to tie on this part of Harbaugh's rehab project in Ann Arbor. Completing the shift of power inside the state will exorcise more demons than just one punt attempt gone horribly wrong.

When it comes to Michigan's trip to East Lansing this Saturday, there is so much more than just the one score to settle.