CHAMPAIGN — For two weeks, Michigan made it easy to forget the fumbling issues that haunted it all year.
After Ben Mason put the ball on the ground early in the Wolverines’ loss at Wisconsin — ending a scoring opportunity and setting Michigan on a spiral — they didn’t repeat the same mistake against Rutgers or Iowa. And, coincidence or not, they won both games, including a nail-biter against the Hawkeyes.
And, despite freshman running back Zach Charbonnet losing the ball in the second quarter against Illinois, it seemed like that would be relegated to a minor issue in the wake of a blowout. The Fighting Illini failed to capitalize, going three-and-out, another drive amounting to nothing in a game that figured to be full of them.
Then things started to go wrong for Michigan. Illinois climbed back into the game. And then, with the Wolverines holding onto an 11-point lead early in the fourth quarter, senior running back Tru Wilson fumbled and handed the Illini a chance to make it a one-score game — of which they did.
What happened next, the Wolverines working their way out of trouble to win, 42-25, does little to hide one of the overarching issues of their season. After Saturday, they have fumbled 17 times, ranked 126th of 130 in the FBS, and lost nine. After six games in 2019, they have lost triple the number of fumbles they did in 2018 while passing their overall total in turnovers from the previous year.
“I think we didn’t even really think about (the fumbles),” said sophomore tight end Luke Schoonmaker. “We got right back up and knew that our defense was gonna hold for us. We were gonna answer and stay confident.”
That’s not too dissimilar to the answers we’ve heard from most players and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, throughout the year when pressed on the issue. To hear them is to be painted a picture of a statistical anomaly. Among the disparities between practice and games — a talking point for any and every issue related to the offense — this seems to rank near the top.
Harbaugh has been asked, repeatedly, what he can do to coach the fumbles out of his team. He was again on Saturday.
“Coaching ball security all the way to the ground,” Harbaugh said, “through the whistle and the echo of the whistle and beyond.
“The things I’m proud of as a team is, there wasn’t this, ‘Here we go again.’ They rose up and got a few fumbles of our own. From where I was standing, we created some of our own.”
It’s more than valid after a win to turn the conversation to what Michigan did well. Where against the Wolverines let the fumble get into their heads against Wisconsin, they rose up against Illinoios. Particularly the defense, which stepped up and forced two late turnovers to seal the game. But that doesn’t change the reality facing Michigan right now.
After six games, and with two top-10 opponents looming in the next two weeks, this can no longer be swept aside as an issue that will inevitably be fixed. Because Penn State and Notre Dame aren’t Illinois. And if the Wolverines give either team an opportunity, they’ll pay dearly.
“Yeah a little bit (of frustration),” said senior quarterback Shea Patterson. “Anytime you got a lead like that, coming out of the second half you gotta keep the foot on the pedal and in full throttle. But sometimes in a game, it happens like that.”
“Couple fumbles that (we) wouldn’t have liked to seen,” Harbaugh added. “Outside of that, I think our offense was playing pretty darn good.”
With the oncoming schedule, though, it’s hard to be confident in caveats.