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
For Michigan football, this was a blown opportunity, a massive disappointment and another example of an inability to secure a spot as a national contender.
But 2018 was not a wasted year or an abject failure.
Jim Harbaugh’s program is better today than a year ago. It’s better today than when he walked into the Junge Center on Dec. 30, 2014, with an unprecedented amount of desperation-induced euphoria and fanfare.
Perspective is necessary, even if it offers little consolation after the Wolverines’ humiliating display in Columbus on Saturday. That was another chapter in this program’s long-standing inability to solve the season’s biggest moment — an ongoing problem Harbaugh inherited but has yet to conquer.
That, by the way, is not a take. It’s a fact.
But considering where things ended last season, it’s impossible to ignore some of the noted progress Michigan did make through 12 games in 2018. It wasn’t enough, but the alternative would’ve been a disaster.
Michigan’s offensive line was cratering after sending two quarterbacks to the hospital in a five-loss campaign a year ago. Harbaugh diagnosed that as a problem and hired Ed Warinner as o-line coach. Michigan’s offensive line cut its sacks allowed by half and has allowed 30 fewer tackles-for-loss.
This from a group that entered the year with unknowns at offensive tackle, a sophomore center and one part-time starter and one full-time starter at guard. The offensive line could’ve been a disaster all season. It wasn’t. And now the Wolverines may possess established depth up front for the first time since the Lloyd Carr era.
It wasn’t enough Saturday. But it’s not irrelevant either.
Michigan’s quarterback situation is better than a year ago, and certainly better than when Harbaugh took over after four years of Brady Hoke. Shea Patterson may or may not return for his senior season, but he’s been the program’s highest-rated passer since Elvis Grbac in 1991 — six years before Patterson was born.
Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton are just getting started at quarterback. We’ll see what happens with Brandon Peters. But either way, this is far from the mess Harbaugh inherited. Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones could be two of the top receivers in the Big Ten next season. Tarik Black still hasn’t been able to show his stuff due to health reasons.
Still, none of it was enough Saturday and Harbaugh’s inability to adapt and change when it matters most during a game has to be addressed. But this offense — after throwing just nine touchdown passes last season — is better.
The defense has questions to answer, of course. Don Brown overestimated Michigan’s ability to keep up with Ohio State’s wide receivers Saturday and was handed the biggest thumping he’s faced — by far — in an otherwise sparkling three seasons.
This year could’ve been a nightmare, wire-to-wire, for Harbaugh if he had refused to change. He could’ve kept longtime assistant Tim Drevno, moved forward without a wide receivers coach, done nothing about his strength program and found himself again on the losing side of games despite a surplus of talent. But he didn’t. Michigan gathered itself and found a way to contend for a Big Ten title for the second time in three years.
The big picture: The program is as solid as its been in years.
The bigger picture: The program still hasn’t figured out how to win the big one.
Michigan froze in the spotlight Saturday at Ohio State. There’s no other way to spin it. There were issues and mishaps that simply hadn’t happened over the course of the previous 10 games. The big stage will do that if you’re not prepared for it and, for a variety of reasons, Michigan wasn’t.
Harbaugh had difficult questions to answer last offseason and he acknowledged nearly all of them. He’ll have to do that again this offseason. The offense can’t continue to revert back to stubbornness in big games. The Wolverines added layers to their attack this season, but barely used them when they needed to the most. It’s up to Harbaugh to figure that out. Michigan doesn’t need numerous voices in charge of offensive scheme. Harbaugh and one coach can figure that out.
Defensively, you can’t ignore 11 games of excellence in favor of one nightmarish performance. But it was a pretty nightmarish. Brown has to — and likely will — find adjustments. Michigan can’t stick with “Plan A” if it’s failing. The entire staff has to be willing to be self-aware and make difficult decisions when the pressure’s peaking. They’re going to lose some players after this season. But they’ve reloaded before.
The expectation that anything less than a championship isn’t an unrealistic notion advanced solely by by fans, by the way. That expectation comes from the head coach.
He came here prior to the 2015 season and went right to work, instead of arguing for a four-year plan. He’s made it clear: Michigan’s mission is to be the best team in college football. To win every award. To win the Big Ten title. To win the national title.
The Wolverines will likely end this season in a New Year’s Six bowl. Whether they win or lose, some will overreact. Either way, the situation will be the same.
There’s been progress. But it’s not enough.
Contact Nick Baumgardner: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.