Free Press writers react to Michigan’s debacle against Ohio State, 62-39, discussing every angle from Columbus, Ohio, Nov. 24, 2018.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Michigan football woke up Saturday morning in control of its Big Ten title and College Football Playoff destiny.
Knowing what we know now, it’s almost ridiculous to think that was possible.
Four years into Jim Harbaugh’s tenure, four losses to Ohio State. Fourteen years without a Big Ten title. Fourteen losses in 15 tries in this once iconic rivalry. Countless letdowns. An endless parade of what-ifs.
When it comes to the big stage and big moment, Michigan football simply doesn’t deliver. It hasn’t in years. And Saturday afternoon in the Horseshoe, just hours after holding the antidote to this allergy in the palm of its hand, the program felt as far away from solving that riddle as it did at the end of a malaise-filled five-loss campaign a year ago.
“We’ll come back motivated to make darn sure it doesn’t happen again,” Harbaugh said after a 62-39 pasting in Columbus.
Down and out, talking about not letting stuff like this happen again — for the umpteenth time in the last umpteen years.
Part of U-M’s problem has been its chief competitors. Namely Ohio State.
Urban Meyer may struggle to make some human Hall of Fame lists after the calamity his program went through this summer. But this is one of the greatest college football coaches ever. He adjusts, he adapts, he evolves, he grinds and he wins. He’s 81-9 at Ohio State. Nick Saban is the only human alive who has done it better for longer.
But there’s also this.
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Michigan woke up Saturday with everything on the line. It got off the bus, warmed up, lined up for the kickoff.
And then completely and totally froze. A pack of deer staring into the world’s largest pair of headlights.
As this program has done in virtually every season-defining moment it’s faced over the past 15 years.
Harbaugh inherited this problem and was brought here to solve it. He hasn’t been able to. There’s something deeper here that seems impossible to put your finger on, though.
Because this is systemic.
Frustration begets more frustration, which leads to more situations like Saturday. Over and over again. U-M doesn’t have a single player on its roster who had won a game like this entering Saturday. Last year’s team didn’t either. Neither did the group before that, or before that.
The only Michigan team to beat Ohio State in the last 14 years did so by six at home against Luke Fickell. U-M football once stood on a foundation of consistency where players passed down habits and attitude and the knowledge of what, exactly, it takes to thrive on stages like this.
That’s been gone for years.
This isn’t the 1970s, ’80s or even the ’90s anymore. Everyone spends money on football now. You don’t get to hang your hat on shared titles anymore. There’s an all-or-nothing aspect to college football now that’s far too intense for many to handle.
Harbaugh has steadied a number of things at Michigan. The Wolverines aren’t watching Rutgers tear down goalposts like Brady Hoke did in 2014. They’re not losing to Toledo or getting consistently pounded by the majority of the Big Ten every year like Rich Rodriguez did. U-M’s academic numbers are terrific. Harbaugh’s 2-1 vs. Wisconsin, 3-1 vs. Penn State and has now pulled even at 2-2 vs. Mark Dantonio.
Jim Harbaugh says Ohio State hurt Michigan with a lot of ‘speed plays,’ and ‘we take responsibility’ for the 62-39 debacle, Nov. 24, 2018.
Nick Baumgardner, Freep
But they’re still winless against big, bad Ohio State. And the longer that continues, the more this process will repeat itself. The more you’ll continue to lose critical head-to-head recruiting battles that keep the talent differential the way it is. The more you’ll struggle to establish a big-game culture. The more frustration you’ll face.
There are many things that can be pointed to for blame in Saturday’s drubbing in Columbus. Harbaugh, who had made progress this season in being less stubborn offensively, went right back to the old conservative well by trying to tip-toe his way up a mountain. The zone-read wrinkles? Gone. Attacking mismatches on Ohio State’s linebackers in coverage? Nope. Being less predictable? Not even close.
Don Brown’s defense clearly over-sold its ability to run with Ohio State and never had an answer in space. Normally a unit that brings the fight to opponents, U-M’s defense stood there and watched Ohio State throw haymaker after haymaker with its jaw on the ground.
Dropped passes, poor blocking, missed assignments.
A lot of stuff that really boils down to one thing.
This was another big-stage throat-grab.
There are no clear solutions for this. At this point, Michigan’s best bet might be to hope Meyer retires and Ohio State bungles its next hire. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to find a way to kick down the toughest door the modern version of Michigan football has ever faced.
With players and coaches who have never done it.
A popular fan response to the statement that Harbaugh has to find a way to beat Ohio State is “or what?” As in, “Are they going to fire him if he doesn’t? Stop playing football? What?”
Michigan is living the “or what” right now.
Another year where your biggest rival made you look inferior. Another year of dashed hope. Another year of missed opportunity.
Another year of not delivering in the season’s biggest moment.
Championship programs deliver. Michigan hasn’t been a championship-level program in more than a decade.
And the current distance between whatever this is and that seems awfully wide right now.
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.