Thirty minutes before Michigan was set to kick off against No. 13 Wisconsin on Saturday night, senior safety Brad Hawkins walked to the back left corner of the end zone and knelt to offer up a prayer. If it had anything to do with football, it was not answered.
By halftime, the Wolverines trailed, 28-0 — their largest halftime deficit in Michigan Stadium’s 94-year history. When the game came to its merciful conclusion two hours later, the score had ballooned to 49-11 and the Jim Harbaugh era reached yet another nadir with a third-consecutive loss.
Through four games, Michigan has been outscored by more points than Rutgers. Their current three-game losing streak is the longest single-season losing streak since 2014. Outside of the Brady Hoke and Rich Rodriguez eras, it’s a stretch not seen at Michigan since 1967.
So as Jim Harbaugh looked up at the scoreboard late Saturday night, he could only bring his hands to his hips and stare blankly forward. It was the same look he wore a quarter earlier when Wisconsin went up 35-3, two quarters earlier when quarterback Joe Milton was stopped on fourth-and-goal, and three quarters earlier when the Badgers jet-sweeped their way around Michigan’s defense.
“Not a good place as a football team right now and that falls on me,” Harbaugh said.
Peppered with questions over the next 12 minutes, Harbaugh’s search for answers continued. Asked about Michigan’s three-game free fall, he emphasized re-evaluating. The same refrain held true when discussing junior quarterback Joe Milton, who finished with 98 yards and two interceptions before getting benched for Cade McNamara.
“We gotta evaluate all things,” Harbaugh said.
After Saturday, the Wolverines don’t have another option.
The latest iteration of their recurring nightmare started before it even began. Milton’s first pass of the game slipped through fifth-year senior tight end Nick Eubanks’ hands for an interception. Six plays and a Wisconsin touchdown later, his second throw found the Badgers’ Leo Chenal over the middle. Twenty yards from the nearest Wolverine, Chenal met his opportunity with equal surprise and gratitude, taking it back to the Michigan 14-yard line.
By the time Milton completed his first pass two drives later, Wisconsin’s lead was 28-0. Michigan’s drive chart, to that point, read: interception, interception, three-and-out, three-and-out.
Including penalties, the Wolverines finished the first quarter with negative-four yards of offense. The Badgers had 129.
“The game started off with two turnovers and we as a defense had a chance to get stops and stop them and hold them to field goals,” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Carlo Kemp said. “And that’s something we didn't end up doing.”
For Kemp and the Wolverines’ defense, it was a familiar story. In last year’s 35-14 loss to Wisconsin, the Badgers ran for 359 yards on 57 carries. “Things just don’t go how you planned it,” Kemp said then.
A year later, Michigan’s run defense improved — by 18 yards. This time around, Wisconsin, sans Jonathan Taylor, gained 341 rush yards on 51 carries against a Wolverines’ defensive line that sorely missed Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson, both out with injuries. Over the past two years, the Badgers have now outgained Michigan, 700 to 87, on the ground.
“We didn’t set an edge all night,” Harbaugh said. “There’s things that we weren’t containing.”
In the passing game, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz wasn’t asked to do much. But unlike Milton, he avoided mistakes, finishing with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“That’s something we really have to look at. Did Joe understand the keys, where he was looking?” Harbaugh said after the game. “I mean, threw a ball right to another guy.”
Meanwhile, Mertz — despite missing two weeks of practice with COVID-19 — said he “didn’t feel rusty,” buoyed by a Michigan secondary that has struggled to stay tight in coverage all season.
For the Wolverines, it was a familiar story.
Another loss, another game without answers, another week of wondering where to go from here.