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Ask Aaron: Why can’t Michigan win on the big stage?

ANN ARBOR — Now that “The Game” has come and gone, it’s time to dissect what went wrong.

How much was on the defense? Why was Michigan so conservative offensively? Is it time for Jim Harbaugh to relinquish play-calling duties and hire an offensive coordinator?

MLive’s Aaron McMann tackles all of those questions and more in this week’s mailbag, answering your Michigan football questions.

As a reminder, if you have one you’d like answered in a future edition, ask it on Twitter @AaronMcMann or email me with “Ask Aaron” in the subject line.

Michigan’s bowl destination hinges on Ohio State and the playoff

Q: How do you explain what happened vs. Ohio State? How could this team be so ineptly prepared? (@MaizeNBlue2)

A: Quite frankly, Ohio State was the better team on Saturday. And I think that surprised most folks, myself included, who thought Michigan had the better talent. And maybe they still do. But the Buckeyes came ready to play with a game plan that worked and the Wolverines did not. After 10 weeks of progress offensively, it seemed as though Jim Harbaugh and the coaching staff reverted right back to what they wanted to do Week 1 vs. Notre Dame. It was the same, plodding drives: run on first and second down, and try to throw the ball on third. Even so, Michigan still scored 39 points and accumulated more than 400 yards of offense. On most weeks, that would have been enough to win the game.

But the defense. Man, Don Brown must feel awful after that one. Credit Urban Meyer and his offensive coordinator, Ryan Day, for doing their homework. They opened up the middle of the field and went to work right away. By the time halftime rolled around, Brown decided to adjust to a 3-4 scheme, which worked for a little bit, only for Ohio State to readjust and throw down the field. Michigan’s secondary seemed a step or two slow all game, and was never able to adapt. I find it difficult to believe Brown was not prepared — spend 10 minutes with the guy and you will quickly realize he is all football all the time — but rather out-schemed. Perhaps Michigan should have gone to zone sooner, and maybe they would have given their offense a chance.

Report: Jim McElwain a ‘strong’ candidate for Central Michigan job

Q: In the four years since Jim Harbaugh arrived, a common theme has been for the team to come out tight and nervous in big games, especially on the road. Is this a reflection of coach Harbaugh’s personality and style? (Ben P., via email)

A: I think it’s more of a reflection of where the program is as a whole. It can be difficult to win on the big stage when you have never done it before. No one on this Michigan roster or coaching staff — save for maybe Greg Mattison — has won the big game on the college level. You could even make the argument Jim Harbaugh has never won the game that really mattered. But instances like that carry water. Michigan used to have classes of players who were used to winning the big games year after year, but that has largely disappeared over the last decade. Michigan may win 8-10 games a season, but everyone knows its record against Ohio State — and Harbaugh hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire against Michigan State or Notre Dame, either. 

Sometimes all it takes is one, and Michigan still is without that game. And don’t try and tell me the wins over Michigan State and Penn State this year were that. The only thing standing in the way of the Big Ten title game two of the last three years has been Ohio State. Harbaugh and the players know that going in to most seasons — a win over the Buckeyes are you’re in. And until that happens again, and/or Urban Meyer decides to hang it up, Michigan may not get over that hump.

Q: It was evident that Michigan’s defensive plan vs. Ohio State was flawed. But statistically, the defense was showing some “gaps” in the preceding games against Rutgers and Indiana. Is the Don Brown defense figured out? (Chris C., via email)

A: You’re on to something here, Chris. I thought the defensive line looked less-than-stellar in the wins over Rutgers and Indiana, and it showed statistically when it gave up 193 and 190 yards rushing, respectively. That boiled over to Ohio State, when the line failed to get any pressure on Dwayne Haskins. With a defense so reliant on getting to the QB, forcing him to make a split-second decision that speeds up the game and the likelihood of a mistake, it failed miserably on Saturday. And as a result, you saw what happened on the back end. Not only were the linebackers out of position for most of the first half, but the defensive backs were asked to try and keep up with receivers for four, five, sometimes six seconds. When that happens, especially in a man-press scheme, coverage is going to breakdown. And it did. 

Q: In your opinion, is Jim Harbaugh on the hot seat in Year 5, where he absolutely must win the Big Ten? (John G., via email)

A: I get the “hot seat” question often, and I think the answer depends on who you are referring to. If you think Harbaugh’s job status is on the line with Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, I find that hard to believe. Manuel has time and again praised Harbaugh for the job he’s done, backed him up in every possible scenario, and appears to have complete confidence in him. Keep in mind, Harbaugh is 38-13 in four seasons. He’s had three 10-win seasons, with the possibility of 11 this year. He’s gotten right there, one game away from reaching the Big Ten championship. Home-game attendance, TV ratings and interest in Michigan football has never been greater. The program is in a much better place than when Harbaugh arrived in December 2014.

The only thing left for him to do, in my opinion, is beat Ohio State and win a Big Ten title. Now, keep in mind, Harbaugh isn’t the only Michigan coach to struggle against the Buckeyes. Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez too. This losing skid is systemic — not just on Harbaugh.

Could Harbaugh be feeling the pressure from himself and boosters and others around him? Possibly. In fact, probably. But I fully believe barring a meltdown on the field or some ridiculous scandal — Michigan has been relatively clean program since Harbaugh arrived — Harbaugh will be allowed to remain the coach here as long as he wants. 

Shea Patterson: Efficient and effective for Michigan in 2018

Q: Is it time for Harbaugh to swallow his pride and hire an offensive coordinator to modernize the offense? (@AStephens723)

A: This is a question that has come up quite a bit in recent days, and a valid one given the play calling on Saturday. But let’s step back a moment and boil this down.

Michigan began the year, much like last year, with several cooks in the kitchen here. Harbaugh kept calling it a “collaborative process,” involving him, assistant head coach and passing-game coordinator Pep Hamilton, offensive line coach Ed Warinner and wide receivers coach Jim McElwain. How involved each person was in unclear, but we know all four have play-calling experience. It sounds (but again, this is unconfirmed because Harbaugh declined to address it all season) as if Hamilton dialed up most of the plays, with Harbaugh’s input.

So, essentially, Hamilton was the offensive coordinator this season. How much of the imprint was him, however, remains a mystery because no one wants to talk about it. It’s important to point out here that Michigan’s offense did evolve as the season went on. They went away from the power and counters and added more RPO and zone-read stuff. That is what you were seeing in the games against Penn State and Rutgers. Then they decided to revert right back to the old way against Ohio State. So, it’s clear they tried to evolve — something fans have been banging down the door for Harbaugh to do for days now.

But I do think Harbaugh could benefit by having someone unlike him in the room with him. Someone that could suggest doing Y when he and Hamilton are suggesting X. And perhaps they did — there are plenty of coaches and analysts on that staff — and they did not listen. If that’s the case, there is not much you can do about stubbornness. You either learn to adapt or slowly wither away. 

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