Once again, Michigan's defense falls flat when it matters most

Saturday, November 30, 2019 - 6:04pm

.

Alexis Rankin/Daily

Jim Harbaugh brought his hands to hips, an empty stare glued to his face.

If he had looked forward, he would’ve seen Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins leaping into the end zone, sparking pandemonium from the sea of red behind him.

Instead, Harbaugh looked down, training his eyes toward his playbook, seemingly in search of answers.

For the eighth-straight year — and fifth in Harbaugh’s five seasons — there were none. Just a 56-27 defeat, further cementing the balance of power in a rivalry that leaves Michigan searching for its soul every November.

It’s a program that, as long as Harbaugh has been here, has hung its identity on its defense. Every year, its defense is lauded as one of the nation’s best. Every year, its defense is the reason it thinks it can beat Ohio State. Every year, the stats back those assertions up through 11 weeks.

And then this game comes, obliterating those misconceptions and exposing the talent gap that the Wolverines spend three months dismissing.

“They’re a very talented team, obviously, (have been) throughout the entire year,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Jordan Glasgow. “But we’re just as talented, I feel like.”

Minutes earlier, sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson sat in the same seat, rejecting the notion that defensive coordinator Don Brown’s scheme was at fault.

“It’s not scheme, we just gotta execute,” Hutchinson said. “That’s it.”

The answer most likely lies between scheme and talent. Per 247’s composite rankings, Ohio State’s roster has 13 former five-star recruits to Michigan’s four. For four-stars, the gap is 47 to 36. None of that is insurmountable, but it creates an uphill battle.

A year ago, that talent gap was evident when Dwayne Haskins shredded Michigan for 396 yards and six touchdowns. In that game, though, Brown stood at the center of criticism for his inability to scheme against the Buckeyes’ crossing routes. This year, there was no single weakness that stood out so glaringly.

Dobbins piled on 211 rushing yards, quarterback Justin Fields passed for 301 and four scores and, once again, Ohio State did whatever it wanted to the Wolverines.

By the time the Buckeyes congregated in the south end zone, dancing on the maize ‘M’ while Michigan trudged down the tunnel, they had scored more points than they did against Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati, Indiana, Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern.

“We gotta dig down next year, see what we got,” Hutchinson said. “You’re not gonna win ballgames when you're letting up 50 to 60 points. It’s not gonna happen. So, we gotta be better.”

It’s an eerily similar sentiment to the one the Wolverines preached a year ago, with an identical silence enveloping Ohio Stadium’s auxiliary media room.

“We’ll come back motivated and make darn sure it doesn’t happen again,” Harbaugh said then.

To make sure he stayed true to his word, Harbaugh went out and hired a young, forward-thinking offensive coordinator, relinquishing the keys to his offense for the first time in his coaching career. But on the defensive side, his only changes came when his hand was forced by these Buckeyes poaching two of his most respected assistant coaches.

So a year later, when a near-carbon copy of that game unfolded in Ann Arbor, there were more questions than answers.

“I’m not going into the criticizing, and blaming and things like that,” Harbaugh said.

He doesn’t need to — the stat sheet does it for him. Ohio State’s composite offensive line over these past two versions of The Game: 118 points, 1,144 yards.

Minutes later, as Hutchinson stared at that stat sheet, all he could do was pause and shake his head in disbelief.

“It’s hard to look at,” Hutchinson said. “We’re just a better defense than this, we’re a better team than this.”

For the second year in a row, they’ll have to wait 12 months to prove it.