SportsTuesday Column: Saying and Doing

Monday, September 3, 2018 - 9:37pm

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his team are saying the right things, but now they have to prove it.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his team are saying the right things, but now they have to prove it. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

The fourth season of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure in Ann Arbor is off to a rocky start after a loss to Notre Dame on Saturday.

Since the final whistle blew, some unflattering stats have been advertised, like how the Wolverines are 9-9 in their last 18 games and how they haven’t won a road game against a ranked opponent since 2006.

But if you ask the Michigan players, there may be room for optimism.

On Monday afternoon, from defensive end Rashan Gary to VIPER Khaleke Hudson to tight end Sean McKeon to wide receiver Nico Collins, and even up to coach Jim Harbaugh, it was nothing but positives pointed out. It was all eyes forward and downplaying the flaws that made the Wolverines 0-1. 

“I think everybody inside of our team believes in each other and believes in the team, believes in each other,” Harbaugh said. “And stressing the importance of going from one week, to Week 1 to Week 2, never more important than with this ballclub. So looking to make all the strides you can in this one week, and focusing on that. We’re focusing on this game, never a more important game than the one we’ll go down the tunnel to play this week.”

I know what you’re thinking: Mike, of course they pointed out positives, what else are they gonna say?

I understand that and agree with it, but just for kicks, let’s break down some of these positives.

First, there was the offensive line.

On Saturday, I thought I saw junior quarterback Shea Patterson and redshirt sophomore Dylan McCaffrey running for their lives for most of the game, and Michigan’s rushing attack limited to just 58 yards.

On Monday afternoon, though, Harbaugh said he thought the unit was much improved. Monday night, during the Inside Michigan Football Radio Show, senior running back Karan Higdon went as far as to say that the offensive line is easy to criticize live, but that when you break down the film, they did some nice things — though he conceded that Notre Dame’s defensive line was better.

I will preface this by saying that I do not know even half as much about football as Higdon, or really anybody on the team. Also, I do not have all the angles and film breakdown capabilities that the Wolverines surely have.

But I did re-watch the game, and what I saw was Patterson and McCaffrey running for their lives for most of the game and Michigan’s rushing attack limited to just 58 yards. 

It is, then, natural to wonder other linemen like redshirt freshman tackle James Hudson could bring to the table, and Harbaugh was asked about that sort of a personnel change on Monday.

“I think the way we played this week is the way we’ll play the next game with the offensive line,” Harbaugh said, though I don’t think he would tell us if he was changing the lineup.

But okay, assuming he’s telling the truth, let’s not dawdle on one aspect. The offensive line is what it is.

Another focus of Michigan’s shortcomings was its defense, which was exposed in the first half and put the Wolverines in a hole from which they couldn’t escape.

To that, Gary and Khaleke Hudson had some answers.

“Not at all,” Gary said when asked if he could pinpoint the defense’s problems in the first half. “The only thing I can really say is we hurt ourselves. You know, only two, three plays, maybe four plays, can hurt you at the end of the game. That’s really what it came down to, and that’s just us hurting ourselves.”

Added Hudson: “Just self-inflicted wounds was the reason why we lost. Just third down penalties and doing some of the stuff we normally do right.”

They are right on this one, in that the second half was a showcase of just how dominant the defense can be. But the reasons for the shortcomings in the first half are a bit troubling.

Often times, Fighting Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush and the offense took advantage of over-aggressiveness from Michigan’s defense. Each first-half touchdown came after a defensive penalty kept the drives alive. Wimbush used quarterback draws to convert on a 3rd-and-6 and a 3rd-and-18, letting the defense over-extend up the field before taking off.

Of course, the other side of that coin is that Michigan is led by its defense. That side of the ball is, undoubtedly, the strength of the team, aggressiveness and all. Keep in mind, though, that this is also a program that has struggled to contain running quarterbacks for… ever?

Luckily there aren’t any other running quarterbacks on the schedule, other than Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Penn State’s Trace McSorley and Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke and Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez and Maryland’s Tyrrell Pigrome and Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey.

I’m sure that’ll be fine.

Okay I’ll just hit on one more quote.

Sophomore wide receiver Nico Collins said the offensive gameplan was not the problem and that it doesn’t need to change moving forward.

The Wolverines failed to capitalize on opportunities all night long offensively, and partially because of the offensive line, but also because they couldn’t come up with the explosive plays that some expected with the addition of Patterson.

When the defense finally locked down in the second half, the offense couldn’t quite climb back into the game.

It feels like at least something could be done to help that, even if it’s just better execution.

Now none of this is to say that Michigan can’t turn things around. It is still a roster loaded with talent, with a coach who has been to the Super Bowl in this decade.

And it isn’t that I expect each player and coach to admit every flaw and give a detailed gameplan for improvement. But it was interesting to hear the calm explanations juxtaposed with seemingly every other fan and pundit losing their mind.

Plain and simple, on the field, something has to change, no matter what the Wolverines say. The offensive line must improve, with personnel changes or without them. The defense has to be solid, and especially against dual-threat signal callers. The offense must get big plays, whether it’s with a better gameplan or better execution.

The stats are ugly for a reason. Michigan is saying the right things to avoid a mutiny, but there is no need for a mutiny if the ship sinks first.