Same. Old. Michigan.
Maybe even a little bit worse.
A week after the Wolverines defied expectations, went on the road and beat a ranked team and looked like a Big Ten contender, they suffered the worst loss of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as head coach. One step forward. Two steps back.
Everything about Saturday’s loss was avoidable and self-wrought. There was no talent deficit in this game. The Spartans are in transition, in their first year under a new head coach after a season in which they were lucky to make the Pinstripe Bowl. They lost to Rutgers just a week ago. This might well be their only win of the season.
That it came in Ann Arbor, against their in-state rivals, in a game where the Wolverines were favored by over 20 points, is a stunning indictment of everything about Jim Harbaugh’s program in year six of his tenure.
“Feels unreal, honestly,” junior running back Hassan Haskins said. “I can’t believe it right now. It don’t feel real right now.”
The Wolverines gave up 86 penalty yards on Saturday. They gave up 323 yards in the air and five plays of 30 yards or more, as a Michigan State passing attack that has been ridiculed across the state was too much to handle. In the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, they looked too gassed to compete on a 92-yard touchdown drive then proceeded to take five minutes off the clock, dinking and dunking their way to a meaningless touchdown with all the urgency the situation would have required in the blowout this game was supposed to be.
Michigan State 27. Michigan 24. It’s rock bottom for the Wolverines under Harbaugh, and it’s time for this fanbase to start reflecting on what it wants out of this arrangement.
“Team is gonna own this,” Harbaugh said. “Congratulations to Michigan State but we gotta own the loss and come back and find out where we can improve. This is a high-character team and I believe they’ll do just that. Each person looking at themselves, player, coach, all of us and strive to be a lot better.”
After past disappointments against Ohio State, bowl opponents and even Michigan State, it was easy for locals to dismiss the national voices calling for Harbaugh’s removal. Competing with Ohio State every year might not be realistic for this program right now. The Spartans were a bona fide contender when Harbaugh came in. But right now, they’re a bottom-feeder in the midst of a rebuild.
Michigan simply cannot lose to them.
Harbaugh is the fourth-highest paid coach in college football, according to USA Today’s annual salary disclosure. A $7.78 million salary demands more than butts in the seats, donations and a high graduation rate. Especially, by the way, if Harbaugh is marching on the school president to demand a season.
At a bare minimum, it demands taking care of business as a three-touchdown favorite over your in-state rival. Not messing around with the wildcat in the red zone when you have a running quarterback, costing yourself four points and then losing by three.
“Close, thought it was a good playcall,” Harbaugh said, “and just needed a little bit more pipe on the throw.”
Of course, the quarterback might have been able to make a better throw.
Those gimmicks fly when you’re winning. But when you need to pull out a win, getting cute with the wildcat, with two kickers on the field for an onside attempt, with last season’s doomed two-quarterback package, is overthinking at best, desperate at worst.
The offense, as Harbaugh said, never found a consistent rhythm. After a first-quarter touchdown drive in which everything hummed, reminiscent of last week at Minnesota, the Wolverines struggled to put together another drive.
“I was thinking too much,” quarterback Joe Milton said. “I was too busy with my feet. It was all on me. O-Line did great.”
It’s admirable that Milton would take the blame, and true that there were clear areas in which he needs to improve. But Michigan, up and down the roster, didn’t come ready to play. And for that, the blame lies at the top.
Harbaugh is due for an extension after this season — his contract is already past the point where most coaches would have negotiated one. After this, is Michigan supposed to give him a raise? In the midst of a pandemic that’s seen layoffs in the athletic department?
It’s time to think long and hard about whether this is what the Wolverines want to be. Eight or nine wins every year, sometimes 10. Little chance of beating Ohio State. More disappointing losses than upset wins. And no chance — none — of a Big Ten title.
Michigan will likely never be a yearly CFP contender in college football’s current environment. But it’s no longer true to say that no other coach can get the Wolverines to where they are now. Tom Allen nearly has Indiana there with far fewer resources. Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa finished a game better than Michigan last season. And that’s just coaches within the Wolverines’ own conference.
Harbaugh deserves plaudits for pulling Michigan out of Brady Hoke’s abyss. Much of the sniping over the last six years has been unwarranted. And maybe it’s all different if a call goes their way in Columbus four years ago. But this is on the verge of stalling out.
And if Harbaugh can’t fix it, maybe it’s time to think about giving someone else a chance.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ethan_sears.