ORLANDO, Fla. — The last time Michigan won a game as an underdog was Nov. 16, 2013. Not through multiple 10-win seasons. Not through the Jim Harbaugh era. And, after Wednesday, the Wolverines aren’t any closer to breaking that streak.
Through the first half, the possibilities were all there, the familiarity of Michigan playing against a bigger, better opponent was all gone. And in the end, it didn’t matter. In the end, the score was a closer 35-16, but still with Alabama on top. In the end, as the Tide poured it on with a Najee Harris touchdown in the final 30 seconds, Michigan’s defense again slowly walked off the field with its heads hung. In the end, that familiarity came rushing back. In waves.
After Alabama tight end Miller Forristall breezed into the end zone untouched with 10 minutes to go, Michigan’s sideline looked familiar. Jim Harbaugh’s hands on his hips. Defensive line coach Shaun Nua’s arms crossed. The entire group of players and coaches standing still as the extra point was kicked.
A few minutes later, senior quarterback Shea Patterson missed Nick Eubanks deep, badly underthrowing a pass straight into the arms of Alabama’s Shyheim Carter and effectively ending Michigan’s chances of pulling off a stunner.
“I didn’t play my best,” Patterson said. “I missed a few throws. … I didn’t make enough plays.”
Michigan’s offense stalled out in the second half, going for just 94 yards, scoring zero points and turning the ball over twice. Patterson finished just 17-of-37 in his last college game, throwing for a touchdown with two interceptions and repeatedly attempting to throw deep with little success.
“I thought there was some really good coverage,” Harbaugh said. “And some of the shot plays, I don’t know if (Patterson) missed any open receivers.”
Regardless, the Crimson Tide outscored the Wolverines, 21-0, in the second half after Alabama switched to a mainly nickel defense. Despite a handful of defensive errors — namely in its coverage of Jerry Jeudy, who caught six passes for 204 yards — the onus here will fall on the offense.
Even in the first half, when the Wolverines moved the ball, running for 135 yards and pulling together a composed response to Jeudy’s 85-yard score on Alabama’s first play from scrimmage, they settled for field goals three times.
Once the Tide adjusted at halftime and started shutting off the run game, Michigan found itself without an answer. And Harbaugh found himself explaining away a season-ending loss for the fourth-straight year.
“They started cutting our edge,” Harbaugh said. “That jammed up a few of the outside running plays. … We didn’t make enough plays, keep enough drives going.”
Alabama didn’t pull away until Forristall’s touchdown. Michigan had its chances, even after the Tide took the lead with a scoring drive to open the second half.
But early in the fourth quarter, when the Tide had a third-and-11 on their own eight-yard line, the Wolverines’ defense finally bent, letting Jeudy get free on an out route to pick up the first down. On the next play, it broke. Jeudy ran across the field untouched for 58 yards, setting up Forristall’s touchdown that grew Alabama’s lead to a decisive 28-16 with 10 minutes left.
“Ohio State had a whole bunch of passes down the field, quarterback scrambling,” McGrone said. “Alabama, same thing. Seems like we’re looking in the mirror.”
Merely being in the Citrus Bowl, the place where Harbaugh’s inaugural season in charge ended on a high note with a win over Florida, inherently represents the stalled-out nature of Michigan football. That win over the Gators is still the highest note on which Harbaugh has ended a season during his time as Michigan’s coach. Possibilities no longer seem limitless. Year five ended in the same place as year one. The only difference is, the Wolverines spent this New Year’s Day running into a wall few expected them to get over.
A win could have generated optimism despite the embedded meaninglessness of an exhibition, taking Michigan into 2020 with a program-building moment. A competitive loss still might. This is, after all, Alabama.
But as the season ended with an end-zone interception and Harbaugh jogged toward the center of the field to give Nick Saban a terse congratulations, the Wolverines found themselves in the same place they’ve finished the last three seasons: Looking up at college football’s elite.