SportsMonday Column: The monkey on Jim Harbaugh's back

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines were upset by Michigan State on Saturday night.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines were upset by Michigan State on Saturday night. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily
Sunday, October 8, 2017 - 4:57pm

The answer provided little clarity.  

Jim Harbaugh was asked for his reaction to his current record against Michigan State and Ohio State, fresh off a rain-soaked grudge match that saw his then-seventh-ranked Wolverines lose, 14-10.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’re bowing our necks, getting ready for the next game. That’s our reaction.”

The fact is, though, that it’s a fair question to ask after Saturday night. After all, it’s one of the only ones left unanswered after he has brought Michigan back to national prominence. But for the first time since he arrived in Ann Arbor, fans were given reasonable cause to doubt what the outcome of Harbaugh’s grand vision for the program will be. 

Tim Drevno may be the offensive coordinator and Pep Hamilton may be the passing game coordinator, but this is Harbaugh’s offense.

And that offense didn’t just sputter, as it has all season. Saturday night, it came to a screeching halt.

It was the lowest scoring output of Harbaugh’s tenure. The Wolverines posted 4.1 yards per play. They averaged just 2.6 yards per carry. They ran 40 different formations in the first half, according to Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, to the tune of just three points.

As for the second half, it was an unmitigated disaster.

Michigan completed less than 50 percent of its passes, and after torrential rains hit Ann Arbor midway through the third quarter, it became baffling why Michigan was throwing so much in the first place. As for the most offensive instance — the Wolverines dared to go five-wide from the shotgun on third-and-short early in the fourth quarter.

In the Wolverines’ first drive after the storm started, they appeared to adopt the logical approach. Junior running back Karan Higdon got the ball four times, giving Michigan two first downs on 23 yards.

Then the Wolverines called three straight pass plays. The third became fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn’s first interception.

On the next drive, Michigan ran the ball once for a yard. O’Korn was sacked, then completed a screen pass to sophomore tight end Sean McKeon for 12 yards. After an incomplete pass, Higdon rushed for seven yards. But on third-and-three, O’Korn was picked off again.

During the following offensive possession, the Wolverines clearly didn’t learn their lesson. After an incomplete pass and another one-yard rush, the Spartans nabbed their third interception in as many possessions.

And if the play calls weren’t questionable already, who was on the field for them was. The Wolverines stuck to their running back rotation, despite the fact that Higdon was clearly their most effective rusher.

Sophomore Chris Evans averaged negative yardage on four second-half carries. Isaac did the same with two. Higdon, on the other hand, averaged 5.9 yards on eight carries.

After the game, Harbaugh said himself that it was fair to criticize the play calling. He said that Michigan was trying to run the ball. The in-game product said otherwise.

He said that the Wolverines were trying to piece drives together. They failed by a long shot.

As for Michigan’s offensive unit, it said all the right things. They wouldn’t lean on the weather as a crutch, and yet there was an underlying truth to their answers.

“It was different at different points,” O’Korn said. “There was one point where it was a torrential downpour and it was tough to throw the football, but there’s no excuses. You’ve gotta do what you’re coached to do and you have to complete the passes that are called.”

Added fullback Khalid Hill: “I mean, the gloves weren’t even helping. We had gloves that we can wear to help with the rain. Those were drenched by the time we was going on the field. The rain played a big part, but still … the mistakes that we made also played a big part.”

That they did, and now Michigan would need to win out to concretely improve upon the last two years — a daunting task given that the Wolverines still need to travel to No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 3 Penn State before facing the ninth-ranked Buckeyes at home.

Make no mistake, Saturday night’s outcome is in no way grounds for a coaching change. It wasn’t long ago that Harbaugh resurrected a program that finished 5-7 before his arrival.

But Saturday’s display was concerning nonetheless, and on the last play of the game, O’Korn took the snap on first-and-10 at Michigan State’s 37-yard line. He danced around the pocket and sent a prayer to the end zone in a game that the Wolverines had plenty of opportunities to win far earlier.

As the ball hung in the air, those who stayed through a torrential downpour held a sliver of hope that this time, the Michigan football team would end up on the right side of a miracle at Michigan Stadium.

Seconds later, they were left sorely disappointed. Donovan Peoples-Jones had a chance, but that was all it was. Three Spartans surrounded him in coverage, and the ball hit a mass of eight hands all clawing at the chance to put their team on the right side of a rivalry. The ball hit the turf.

Those who stayed, well, they were left to watch as Michigan State rushed the field. They were left to watch as the Wolverines walked off it, heads bowed in disappointment.

More than anything, though, they were left with this stark reality: Jim Harbaugh is now 1-4 against the Wolverines’ two biggest rivals, and he was outcoached Saturday night.

Santo can be reached at kmsanto@umich.edu or on Twitter @Kevin_M_Santo.