MADISON — Among the many platitudes uttered after one of the worst losses Michigan has suffered in the Jim Harbaugh era was a prevailing echo that this was not the end.
One loss in the Big Ten does not doom anybody, especially one to an out-of-division opponent. There is still time to turn things around and meet whatever goals the Wolverines harbor.
“Everyone’s really determined and focused,” said senior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. “Our season’s not over.”
And technically speaking, he’s right. Michigan’s season is not over, at least not in the literal sense. Its goals of a Big Ten title, and even a College Football Playoff berth, are still in play. The team will not spend the next 10 weeks on a slow death march, waiting for the season to end and for a free trip to somewhere warm.
But after Saturday, and Wisconsin’s 35-14 beatdown of the Wolverines, it’s hard to believe it won’t end that way. Not because anyone is consigned to anything. But because of what we saw on the field — a team that, right now, can’t hang with the class of the Big Ten and isn’t particularly close to being able to do so.
It’s not that Michigan lost. It’s the way Michigan lost.
Josh Gattis’ offense, advertised with #SpeedinSpace, looked overwhelmed, the only points coming in garbage time. Michigan’s defense was physically outmatched as Wisconsin ran for a collective 359 yards. Jonathan Taylor alone went for 203, more than any Michigan player has run for over the entire season to this point. The Wolverines lost by three scores and the margin could have been larger had Wisconsin not taken its foot off the gas or had Taylor not missed some time with an injury.
After the game, there was talk of identity and improvement. It meant about as much as the talk beforehand about making a statement.
“It’s up to us to find an identity,” said senior tight end Nick Eubanks. “We got a game coming up next Saturday. We gotta find it quick.”
The bottom line is this: If you haven’t figured out your identity three games into the season, that problem can’t be solved with a press conference sound bite.
It’s been six months since spring practice opened. It’s hard to believe six more days will make the ultimate difference.
An identity, it turns out, cannot be reduced to a hashtag. Jim Harbaugh, Josh Gattis and Michigan have learned that lesson the hard way.
As for the other side of the ball, the Wolverines at least seem to know what they want to be. The problem is, they’re nowhere near it.
“I think we pride ourselves on being the best defense in college football,” said senior safety Josh Metellus. “And these last couple weeks, we haven’t shown that.”
On Saturday, they showed the opposite. It’s easy to look at the stats and assume this was the Jonathan Taylor show. And to be sure, Taylor played as well as you’d expect, bouncing out of trouble for big gains more than once. But the Badgers ran the ball as well as they did because they dominated in the trenches. As much as the offseason focus centered on losing defensive ends Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary, losing Lawrence Marshall and Bryan Mone might have caused the most noticeable drop-off.
The Wolverines don’t have the depth, size or strength to compete on the interior against a team like Wisconsin.
“We got our backs against the wall,” said sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. “We just gotta fight.”
On Saturday, there was no fight. No willpower and no physicality. The Wolverines got pushed around and bullied. Their 14 points came because Wisconsin decided not to kick them when they were down.
This team is talented — talented enough to live up to the hype that surrounded them for six months. But it showed nothing on Saturday to indicate it can go to Penn State and win. It showed nothing to prove it can move the ball against a defense like Michigan State. Good luck beating Notre Dame or Ohio State playing like it did against Wisconsin.
This doesn’t look like a Big Ten contender. It looks like a group on the fast track to 7-5.
In the past, winning games against ranked teams has been the difference between a consolation bowl and title contention. This year, it might be the difference between a consolation bowl and a flaming disaster — five of their remaining games are against top-25 teams.
There’s time to fix it, but there’s a lot to fix and an unforgiving schedule.
“You guys weren’t in our huddle,” Hutchinson told the media at large. “You guys weren’t on the sideline with us. You guys don’t know what goes on in our defense.”
It’s true — Michigan doesn’t let the media into practice. We don’t know what’s said in the locker room and we’re nowhere near the sideline or huddle. But we do see the end product every Saturday. And that’s where the Wolverines have fallen woefully short.
If that doesn’t change, it’ll be a long 10 weeks ahead.
Sears can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethan_sears.