Two weeks ago, the Michigan football team reached its lowest point at the Big House in Jim Harbaugh’s six-year tenure with a shocking loss to three-touchdown underdog Michigan State.
It stooped even lower on Saturday night, this time to the tune of a 94-year record. For that, it has only its own lack of execution to blame.
The Wolverines were chased off their own field from the opening kickoff. By the end of the second quarter, Michigan trailed No. 13 Wisconsin, 28-0 — its largest halftime deficit in the history of Michigan Stadium, which opened in 1927. It only got worse as the night went on, resulting in a 49-11 loss.
For much of the first half, Harbaugh stood on the sideline, bent over, hands on his hips. It was a far cry from the coach who triumphantly returned to Ann Arbor in 2015 and wore his heart on his sleeve.
On the field, his players appeared to do the same. The Wolverines gained a mere one yard of total offense in the first quarter, and junior quarterback Joe Milton didn’t even complete a pass to his own team until the Badgers led 28-0. Things weren’t much better on the defensive side of the ball, as Wisconsin strolled into the end zone with little resistance on multiple occasions.
Asked to put his finger on where things went sideways, fifth-year senior captain Carlo Kemp shrugged.
“Things just happened,” Kemp said. “Things played out like that.”
Added Harbaugh: “We were thoroughly beaten in every phase. Didn’t really do anything well. And did not play good, did not coach good. Not in a good place with the execution, not in a good place adjusting and what we were doing schematically. So not a good place as a football team right now and that falls on me.”
The words echoed Harbaugh’s sentiment following last year’s trip to Madison. After getting blown out 35-14, he proclaimed Michigan was “outcoached and outplayed.” The same words applied on Saturday night.
The storyline leading up to this game was whether or not Badgers’ quarterback Graham Mertz would play after his recent bout with COVID-19. As it turns out, that barely mattered. Michigan seemingly folded in the first quarter, and by the end of the night, its body language spoke louder than the lopsided scoreboard.
Playing for pride in the second half, the Wolverines tarnished their only spark — a four-play touchdown drive led by backup quarterback Cade McNamara — with a running into the kicker penalty on fourth-and-five. The ensuing dejection was apparent.
With heads hanging low, the Wolverines finished the fourth quarter with zero yards of total offense. By contrast, their porous defense surrendered 163 in a lifeless garbage time showing. Understandably, the results left Harbaugh floored.
“All things, thoroughly, (are) not where they need to be in terms of execution,” Harbaugh said. “So that starts with, as I said, starts with me, starts with our coaches, and also every person here. Understand what we’re supposed to do and then going and executing it.
“If somebody’s not executing it, then why is that? Are we communicating, are we coaching it well enough? There’s nothing right now to say that an acceptable job is being done right now. Players or coaches.”
Following Saturday night’s embarrassment, Michigan is 1-3 for the first time since 1967. More specifically, it is 1-3 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2014. Harbaugh’s predecessor, Brady Hoke, was fired after that season.
The next month could determine whether or not Harbaugh endures the same fate. He has the back half of a pandemic-shortened season to fix things, and at this point, it seems the best place to start is in his own players’ heads.
“Right now, my concern level’s nowhere near worried or nervous or anything,” Kemp said. “… Am I worried? No. We’ve shown in the last three weeks, even though what the outcome has not been what we wanted at all, we’re still here.”
Michigan is quickly learning that showing up isn’t enough.