The Jim Harbaugh era is in free fall.
No quarterback switch changes that. Certainly, no overtime win against Rutgers changes that.
In the first overtime Saturday night, senior kicker Quinn Nordin pushed a field goal wide right, leaving Rutgers with the game in its hands. Because it’s Rutgers, that didn’t happen. The Scarlet Knights opted for conservatism at the worst possible moment, settling for a 45-yard field goal that they missed.
It’s a miss that enabled Jim Harbaugh to sing his team’s praises after the game.
“They’re good at football,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve been good at football for a long time.”
Here’s the thing: That’s not true.
They weren’t good at football when they lost to a 1-4 Michigan State team. They weren’t good at football in consecutive blowouts against Indiana and Wisconsin. And they’re still not good at football after a 48-42 triple-overtime win over the Big Ten’s perennial doormat.
All Saturday night does is make it easier to play pretend.
Now, there are some areas in which credit is due. Sophomore quarterback Cade McNamara replaced junior Joe Milton in the second quarter and turned the game on its head. He completed 27-of-36 passes for 260 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Behind McNamara, Michigan outscored Rutgers, 48-25.
But if you think any of that means the Wolverines are good, remember where this program came from.
In five previous matchups under Harbaugh, Michigan outscored the Scarlet Knights by 219 — good for an average margin of victory of 43.8. Even with a new quarterback, this year’s iteration isn’t capable of such domination.
The main culprit, its defense, is simply too bad. On Saturday, the defense was a key reason Michigan won because it managed to stop bleeding points for one drive.
“I wouldn’t single out one person but just as a collective whole, I just felt as a whole defense we were locked in,” senior linebacker Josh Ross said. “And the guys that needed to step up for guys that got injured, the backups really stepped up and was locked in and keyed in the whole game.”
All of that is fine and well. The Wolverines were without their two starting defensive ends and lost junior linebacker Cam McGrone early on as well. Senior linebacker Adam Shibley and senior safety Hunter Reynolds filled in admirably.
But the on-field evidence remains. Michigan allowed Rutgers to gain 482 total yards of offense. Quarterback Noah Vedral had a career day, because that’s what quarterbacks do against Michigan in 2020. Needing eight points to tie on the final drive of regulation, the Scarlet Knights marched 75 yards, converting on a third-and-8, a third-and-11, a fourth-and-9 and a two-point conversion.
In the second overtime, when Rutgers actually tried to score, it promptly shredded the Wolverines’ defense with a rollout throwback for a touchdown on the first play.
If they had done so one overtime period sooner, the Scarlet Knights would have returned Michigan to an eerily familiar low point. Back in 2014, Brady Hoke’s last year, the Wolverines went to Piscataway and lost, 26-24. Since then, Rutgers has won seven conference games. Only the worst of the worst lose to the Scarlet Knights.
Michigan isn’t quite there yet. There are four or five teams in the Big Ten worse than it (including 2016 conference champion Penn State, it should be noted).
But it’s close. And that’s an indictment in and of itself. Four years ago, the Wolverines won Harbaugh’s first game in Piscataway, 78-0. That’s what Harbaugh was hired to bring — a swaggering, dominant outfit that stomped on overmatched opposition and could go toe-to-toe with the nation’s best.
“Our players were better,” Harbaugh said then. “Not to take anything away from (Rutgers’) players, they’ve got a lot of good players, a lot of talented players, but we have more of them.”
Added VIPER Jabrill Peppers: “Just wow. I’ve never been part of a victory this massive.”
Those days are long gone. That much lay in plain sight Saturday night, when Michigan spilled onto the field to mob sophomore safety Daxton Hill for a game-winning interception.
The Wolverines celebrated like they should after snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The problem is that they had to do so in the first place.
No final score or postgame optimism can hide that.
Mackie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @theo_mackie.