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 — His quarterback took a knee in the end. A merciful gesture from a ruthless coach who has owned Michigan since he took over at Ohio State seven years ago.
In other words, U-M’s worst loss in rivalry history could’ve been … worse. So thank Urban Meyer for that.
But then this isn’t about the Ohio State football coach and his talented Buckeyes and the spiritual malaise his program overcame to dismantle the Michigan Wolverines, 62-39.
This is about Jim Harbaugh, U-M’s head football coach, who took the job four years ago to win this very game — and hasn’t. This is about expectation and preparation and clinging to football’s ideal instead of its evolution.
On Saturday afternoon, with a Big Ten title and potential College Football Playoff spot on the line, one team looked like the future of football and one team did not.
The Wolverines looked slow and stubborn, and played like they had never seen such speed. Mostly because they hadn’t. We just didn’t know it. Blame the mediocre Big Ten. Turns out the teams U-M trounced on its “revenge tour” possessed more name recognition than talent or football ability.
Wisconsin? Penn State? Michigan State?
They weren’t the teams they had been in recent years. And now, after watching Meyer and his spread offense sprint past the Wolverines, it’s time to say U-M isn’t the team we thought it was, either.
In a vacuum, that stings. So many — including many Wolverines themselves — thought this was finally their year to beat the Buckeyes and reclaim the top spot in the conference. And to lose the opportunity to get to the playoff when it felt so close just plain hurts.
“Everyone is down right now,” said Tyree Kinnel, U-M’s senior safety.
“I guess you could say (we are) shocked,” he said “Felt like we had a good shot at dominating this game … they completely beat us everywhere. Maybe we got a little bit too ahead of ourselves.”
Yet what’s more troubling is why U-M lost.
For starters, Ohio State had the fastest players on the field. The Buckeyes also had the best quarterback in Dwayne Haskins.
It helped that Haskins had more time to throw than his counterpart, Shea Patterson. More than that, it helped that he was throwing to a bevy of speedy receivers who were often spread out wide and running free.
The Wolverines didn’t have enough speed to cover all of them. And even if they did, Haskins had too much time in the pocket.
“They had a lot of athletes,” said Patterson.
It was the truest difference in the game. It was stunning.
Harbaugh was brought to Michigan to close that gap. And he has.
He just has a ways to go.
Meanwhile, Patterson spent a lot of the afternoon handing to running backs charged with finding room to run when there wasn’t any and throwing when he was being chased.
It’s true that Harbaugh went conservative in his offensive approach and he’s going to have to open his schemes as he moves forward. It’s also true that it’s harder to dial up aggressive plays when the personnel doesn’t quite fit.
Several of U-M’s players commented on the speed and athletic ability of the team they faced Saturday afternoon. And while the difference in talent wasn’t what it was four years ago when Harbaugh took over, the gap has grown since the last time he brought his team to Columbus.
Two years ago, Harbaugh arrived with the slightly better team, with a roster of future NFL draft picks and a lot of juniors and seniors. That squad lost in overtime after a controversial fourth-down spot.
Perhaps you remember. You should also remember that Ohio State needed mistakes from Michigan that day to win.
Harbaugh was coaching Brady Hoke’s recruits that day. Or at least a lot of them. Well, he has his own guys now.
Good enough to run through most of the Big Ten. Not good enough to win it.
So, where does he go from here?
Aside from continuing to tweak his offensive approach, he needs to keep pushing for top-end talent on the edges, and to bring in more speed. It’s where the game is headed, and where it already is at the highest level.
Harbaugh deserves credit for reworking part of his staff this offseason and for making the commitment to strengthen his team. He did. And if U-M wins its bowl game next month, he’ll finish with a tidy 11-2 record.
That’s not bad. But it’s also not what he was hired to do.
Last summer, he went about updating his program. Saturday shows us how far he still has to go.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.